THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO
EMPEROR NAPOLEON DUKE OF WELLINGTON
Napoleon's catastrophic defeat in the Russian campaign of 1812 led to renewed efforts by the dormant allied powers to liberate occupied Europe from French rule. A series of French defeats in 1813 meant that by January of 1814 France itself was effectively under siege.
The victorious allies crossed the French border inflicting continuous defeats on the hard pressed French armies culminating in the fall of Paris on March 31st. Napoleon had no choice but to abdicate the throne and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba with a personal body guard of 1,000 men. Almost one year later on March 1st 1815 Napoleon escaped his island prison and returned to France.
Upon landing on French soil Napoleon quickly began his march towards Paris, forces sent by the Royalist government to oppose him quickly changed sides including an infantry corps commanded by Napoleon's former comrade Field Marshall Ney.
On March 19th the Royal court abandoned Paris and Napoleon entered the city in triumph. Upon receiving the news of Napoleon's returnthe great powers of Europe, Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia formed the seventh coalition and vowed to destroy Napoleon once and for all.
Napoleon's only hope for victory was to concentrate against the more threatening allied armies first, a plan which drew him towards Wellington and Blucher. On June 15th at the head of 100,000 men, Napoleon crossed the Sambre river into Belgium and quickly ran into Blucher's Prussian army blocking his advance at Ligny. The next day Napoleon promptly gave battle and easily swept the Prussian's from the battle field inflicting 16,000 casualties upon them.
Napoleon could not pursue Blucher and finish him off for he still had Wellington to contend with. Napoleon instead dispatched 30,000 men, one third of his army under the command of Field Marshall Grouchy with orders to maintain contact and prevent Blucher from coming to the aid of Wellington's army.
With the Prussian's retreating the road to Brussels now lay open. As Napoleon continued north towards the Belgium capitol a torrential thunderstorm arose which drenched the entire countryside. It was at the small town of Mont St Jean just south of Waterloo, that Wellington choose to make a stand and stop Napoleon's advance.
As the two commanders deployed their forces the thunderstorm continued to rage over the battle field throughout the night and into the next morning. Napoleon wanted to begin the attack at 9am but the condition of the ground was too soft to effectively maneuver the French artillery and the attack was postponed until 11:30am.
For the battle Napoleon had 70,000 men ( 48,000 infantry 15,000 cavalry and 246 cannon's served by 7,000 gunners ). The French left wing consisted of three divisions of infantry under General Reille with Pire's cavalry protecting the extreme left flank. Behind the infantry formations was the heavy cavalry under General Kellerman with the guard cavalry directly behind in reserve.
On the French right wing were four divisions of infantry commanded by General D`Erlon with Jacquinots cavalry protecting the extreme right flank. Behind the infantry formations stood General Milhaud's heavy cavalry with the guard light cavalry in reserve.
Occupying the center of the French army was Lobau's infantry corps with the cavalry squadrons of Domon and Subervie in support. To the rear of the entire French army stood Napoleon's best troops, his Imperial Guard.
Wellington's army consisted of 68,000 men ( 51,000 infantry 12,000 cavalry and 156 cannon's served by 5,000 gunners ). Wellington's position was strong, he stretched out his army along the entire length of the battle field massing the bulk of his forces on his right flank leaving the left of his army lightly held, ( this clearly shows that he expected Blucher to arrive and support him ).
Wellington drew up most of his troops on a reverse slope out of sight and protected against French artillery, the extreme right flank was held by General Chasse's infantry division along with cavalry of the thirteenth Hussars. An allied infantry corps made up of troops from Saxe-Weimar under Prince Bernard along with Lord Hills infantry corps occupied the rest of the allied right wing.
Wellington's center was held by five brigades of infantry under the Prince of Orange. Behind this center line stood General Picton's infantry division and three cavalry divisions under General's Somerset, Tripp and Ponsonby in reserve. The left wing was held by an infantry corps under General Perponcher with two cavalry brigades under Vandeleur and Vivian occupying the extreme left flank.
The allies also occupied some strong points too the front of their battle line designed to break the momentum of the French attacks. Too the front of the right flank the chateau Hougoumont was occupied by a contingent of Nassauers and Hanoverians. Too the front of the allied center the La Haie Sainte farm was occupied by the kings German legion and too the front of the extreme left flank the small towns of Papelotte and La Haie were occupied by Saxe-Weimar troops.
At 11:30 am Reille's artillery opened fire on Hougoumont. Napoleon had intended the bombardment as a diversion to draw Wellington's attention away from his main attack, but his brother Prince Jerome was determined to capture the Chateau no matter what the cost.
Jerome lead forward a brigade of his division and charged the high walls of the Chateau but was repulsed, he then sent in a second brigade and although they did penetrate the main gate they too were thrown back with heavy losses. Angered by these setbacks Jerome now committed the remainder of his division in an all out attack.
While Jerome's debacle continued, Napoleon's attention was drawn to a large body of troops appearing in the distance just off his right flank. Jacquinot's cavalry had captured some Prussian prisoners and an intercepted message from Blucher to Wellington revealing to Napoleon that two Prussian corps were at Wavre and approaching the battle field.
Napoleon needed to make a quick decision, he could easily withdrawal but if he allowed the allies to join forces he would find himself badly outnumbered by the two combined armies at a later date.
Napoleon believed he still had a good chance of defeating Wellington before the Prussian's arrived in strength, so he choose to continue with the battle. Napoleon now ordered Lobau's corps supported by Damon and Subervie's cavalry to cover the French right flank against the approaching Prussian's, while sending an urgent message to Marshall Grouchy's corps to march on Waterloo with all hast.
At 1:00 pm Napoleon gave the order to commence with the main attack. The grand battery of cannons to the front of D'Erlon's corps opened fire. After a murderous half hour of heavy artillery ordnance directed against the allied left of center, D'Erlon ordered three of his four infantry divisions forward.
FIELD MARSHALL NEY
It is during D'Erlon's advance that Field Marshall Ney makes a serious tactical error sending but a single cavalry brigade to support the infantry. ( according to military doctrine of the day, Ney should have preceded the infantry with a massed cavalry attack to force the enemy infantry to form into squares ). As a result D'Erlon's assault began to lose cohesion as it's ranks were decimated by allied artillery and rifle fire.
Wellington now ordered Picton's division to fix bayonets and counter attack the badly mauled French infantry. In the bloody carnage that ensued, General Picton was himself killed. With the French beginning to waiver and give ground lord Uxbridge seized the moment and ordered the cavalry formations of Somerset and Ponsonby to charge the weakening French position.
Somerset's household brigade routed Traver's cuirassiers accompanying the French infantry and chased them from the field. Ponsonby's brigade plunged deep into the massed French infantry and easily swept them aside. Ponsonby's horsemen now continued onward through the valley and charged the grand battery of cannons and although they reached the guns killing scores of French gunners and silencing many cannons, their gallant charge would be doomed.
Napoleon now ordered one of Milhaud's heavy brigades and Jacquinot's lancers to counter attack and rectify the situation. Wellington immediately sounded the recall but it would be too late. Ponsonby's exhausted chargers could not carry their riders back to the safety of the British lines and the entire brigade along with Ponsonby himself was chased down and cut to pieces.
BRITISH CAVALRY CHARGING THE FRENCH CANNONS
Wellington used the time won by his cavalry to reinforce La Haie Sainte and bring up a reserve brigade to plug the gaps in the allied line while at the same moment on his left flank, Prince Bernhardt's Saxe-Weimer troops had captured the town of Papelott.
During these events Prince Jerome's pointless attack on Hougoumont continued until Napoleon finally intervened and called off the attack instead ordering cannons be brought up to level the Chateau. The cannon barrage soon set fire to the structure but the stubborn defenders would not give up their positions and continued on fighting.
At 3:30 pm Napoleon ordered all available cannons to direct their fire on Wellington's central position. By 4:00pm the more numerous French guns began to gain the upper hand and relentlessly pounded the allied center. Wellington now ordered his lines to fall back behind the cresting plateau's for cover, he then urgently summoned units from his right and left flanks to rebuild his decimated center.
It is at this moment that Field Marshall Ney makes yet another critical error. Through the thick haze and smoke Ney concluded that Wellington was retreating. Ney now ordered Milhaud's entire cavalry corps along with the light cavalry squadrons of Lefebvre and Desnottes to immediately attack.
Ney personally lead these powerful cavalry formations not against Wellington's battered center, but allowed his forces to slowly veer towards the allied right of center, the least damaged part of Wellington's line.
During this assault Ney also failed to order any infantry forward to support his attack and to add to this debacle, the Field Marshall's error in judgment also forced the grand battery of cannons to cease their supporting fire.
Hindered by the soft wet ground and fired upon by British artillery from all over the battlefield, Ney's chargers struggled to keep their cohesion and reach the allied line intact. As the gallant charge finally crested the plateau the French cavalry came across the allied infantry formed into massive formidable squares which easily broke up their momentum.
The French cavalry continued to swarm in and around the British squares repeatedly trying to break them up and although they succeeded in destroying a few lone squares, the majority remained firmly intact.
Lord Uxbridge now ordered his cavalry to counter attack in support of the infantry squares. The arrival of fresh allied cavalry proved too much for the already heavily engaged French horsemen and they were slowly driven back down the slope.
Ney rallied the French cavalry to reform and attack the squares once again, but meet with the same results. Napoleon became furious with his Field Marshall's failure but he knew it was to late to call off the engagement and was forced into the decision that Ney must be supported.
Napoleon now ordered Kellerman and Guyot to join in Ney's next attack, this action would now commit the whole of the French cavalry on the battlefield. In the fighting that ensued several British squares were penetrated and destroyed but the remainder somehow just managed to hold together. After as many as twelve unsuccessful charges, Ney finally ordered what was left of the badly mauled French cavalry to retire.
BRITISH SQUARES REPEL FRENCH CAVALRY
Ney now follows up this failure with yet another mistake (his third of the battle) Ney orders Bachelu's infantry division and a brigade from Foy's division (again unsupported) towards the allied center. Under heavy cannon and musket fire the French attack fails miserably and is thrown back with heavy losses. Meanwhile on the French right flank General Lobau was just barely holding the Prussian's from emerging onto the battlefield.
At 5:30 pm Napoleon orders Ney to once again take La Haie Sainte. Supported by a small contingent of cavalry, Ney took command of an infantry regiment and after a furious assault captured the building at 6:00 pm. Artillery was then brought up and began to fire upon Wellington's now crumbling center. Ney then urgently called upon the Emperor for reinforcements to exploit the situation but Napoleon steadfastly refused.
Napoleon had good reason for denying Ney's request, for on the French right flank the Prussians had at last pushed Lobau aside and had captured Placenoit. Napoleon now turned too his Old Guard to rectify the situation ordering General's Morand and Pelet to recapture the town.
Two battalions of the Imperial Guard were thus sent in with the bayonet pitted against fourteen battalions of Prussian infantry, within twenty minutes the Guard had cleared the town leaving 4,000 Prussian dead and Plancenoit was once again in French hands.
POSITIONS AT 6:00 PM
With the Prussian's momentarily repulsed Napoleon could now turn his full attention back to Wellington. The allied center was in such bad shape that Napoleon believed one last major assault would finish the battle. At 7:00 pm Napoleon handed command of the Imperial Guard over to Ney with orders to deliver the final blow at Wellington's center.
To the sound of drums and trumpets these undefeated veterans of the Napoleonic wars marched forward. Just as the Guard began to reach the allied forward positions Blucher and the main Prussian army had finally arrived on the battle field opposite Napoleon's right flank.
Napoleon was well aware the gravity of the situation and had it circulated amongst his troops that these were Field Marshall Grouchy's men coming to join them. The Emperor also had no illusions in that he knew all hope of French victory now rested with the Imperial Guard as they marched forward.
But yet again Instead of advancing directly towards Wellington's decimated center, Ney allowed his command to drift towards the allied right. Since Ney's last assault, this sector of the British line had been rebuilt and fortified with substantial reinforcements from the allied right flank.
As the French came within musket range British troops suddenly rose up from behind the cresting plateaus and poured a series of murderous volleys into the ranks of the advancing Guardsmen.
With each British volley hundreds of Guardsmen fell dead but they closed ranks and continued to march forward. From all over the battlefield every available British gun was now trained upon them.
After suffering through an endless barrage of rifled ordnance the Guard stopped, slowly gave ground, and then did the unthinkable, they began to retreat. The blood bath in which they found themselves was more than even France's elite troops could withstand.
The cry of "La Garde Recule" (the Guard retreats) now rang out over the battlefield spreading terror and panic throughout the French ranks. At the same moment the Prussians had recaptured Plancenoit and were now pouring onto the battle field in force. Sensing the moment of victory was at hand Wellington ordered what was left of the allied army forward in a general advance.
THE OLD GUARD PROTECT NAPOLEON
With the French army now disintegrating, the remainder of the Imperial Guard formed a massive square in the center of the battlefield. Although they were able to buy Napoleon enough time to escape, by refusing to surrender and fighting to the very last, they were gradually wiped out to a man under combined British and Prussian attacks.
By 9:00 pm the battle of Waterloo had ended in total French defeat, the British and her Dutch-Belgium allies had suffered 15,000 dead and the Prussians 7,000 more. French losses at Waterloo were a staggering 40,000 men.
Napoleon fled back to Paris where he found the people unwilling to give him further support, he thus surrendered to the British and was sent into exile a second time on the far off island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic were he died in 1821.
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