On This Day


On This Day: Napoleon Defeated at Waterloo

June 18, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 18, 1815, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was beaten decisively by British and Prussian forces in the Battle of Waterloo, the final battle of his career.

Prussian Reinforcements Doom Napoleon to Defeat

In the spring of 1815, after less than a year in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France, raised an army of loyal soldiers and marched to Paris, where he reclaimed control of France from King Louis XVIII and declared himself emperor.

A coalition of European powers, which included England, Prussia, Russia and Austria, declared Napoleon an outlaw. Two main coalition armies were formed by the end of May: the Duke of Wellington’s primarily English army with Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers, and a Prussian army led by Leberecht von Blücher. The Austrian and Russian forces were slower to mobilize, however, and Napoleon decided to strike before they could arrive.

Napoleon marched his army of 72,000 men to present-day Belgium, where he met Wellington’s 68,000-man and Blücher’s 45,000-man armies. On June 16, Napoleon’s forces held off Wellington at Quatre Bras and defeated Prussian forces in the Battle of Ligny; it would be the last victory of his career.

Napoleon had hoped to split the English and Prussian armies, but the surviving Prussians were able to retreat toward Wellington at Mont-Saint-Jean, located near Waterloo. Napoleon decided to strike Wellington’s army on June 18, before the majority of the Prussians could arrive. However, he was forced to delay the attack from morning to midday to allow the wet battlefield to dry.

Napoleon targeted the center of Wellington’s army, but his early attacks were repulsed. That evening, a cavalry charge led by French Marshal Michel Ney broke through Wellington’s center, leaving the allies vulnerable. Ney demanded more troops, but men were needed elsewhere: the late-arriving Prussian troops were making advances along the flanks.

Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard, a famed reserve that had never been defeated, to assist on the flanks. After it had stabilized the flanks, part of the Guard was sent to support Ney in the center, but it was too late: Wellington’s forces had regrouped with the arrival of Prussian reinforcements. The Guard was soon overrun in the center and on the flanks, and, for the first time in its history, it was forced to retreat.

The retreat of the Imperial Guard sent the army into a panic and a mass retreat followed. In all, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the French army had 25,000 casualties and 9,00 men captured, while the coalition forces had a combined 23,000 casualties. Four days later, on June 22, Napoleon abdicated for the second time in as many years.

Biography: Napoleon Bonaparte

Born in 1769, on the island of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to commander-in-chief of the French army in 1796. He went on to lead the French to victories over Germany and Austria and seize control over much of Italy, Switzerland and Holland, as well as parts of Germany and Belgium. He established a military dictatorship in France in 1799, and named himself emperor in 1804.

However, his invasion of Russia in 1812 severely weakened his army, enabling coalition forces to defeat Napoleonic forces in 1813-4. Driven back into France by more powerful coalition armies, Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne and accept exile to Elba, an island off the coast of Italy, in April 1814.

After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic where escape was nearly impossible. He died there in 1821.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines