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Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo

On 18 June 1815, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of France, faced each other in battle for the first and only time. They were the same age, but from very different backgrounds – one a member of an aristocratic Irish family, the other a Corsican peasant who had worked his way up the ranks of the French army. Their meeting, a few miles south of the town of Waterloo in what is now Belgium, would determine the fate of Western Europe.

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

News of Napoleon’s advance across the border reached Wellington in the early hours of the morning of 15 June while he and many of his senior officers were in Brussels at a Ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. Wellington, not wishing to disappoint the Duchess, had assured her that the Ball should go ahead despite the threat from Napoleon. Contemporary paintings show the ladies at the Ball in long white gowns with red sashes, and the officers in their magnificent dress uniforms, typically tight fitting breeches and short jackets with gleaming buttons, epaulettes and high collars. No doubt the food was sumptuous and the wine flowed. Such was the urgency of the situation that some of them marched to meet the French without bothering to change.

Wellington described his army, admiringly, as ‘the scum of the earth’. His officers, however, were anything but. Some, such as General Sir Thomas Picton, who led his cavalry in a headlong charge which routed the enemy but also led to the deaths of most of his men and himself, were a trifle eccentric, others more cautious. All were courageous leaders who cared only for the glory of their regiment. The Earl of Uxbridge, for instance, was hit by an artillery shell while seated on his horse beside the Duke. ‘Damn me.’ He is reported to have exclaimed, ‘I have lost my leg.’ Wellington glanced at him. ‘Damn me’, he replied, ‘So you have, sir.’ Happily, the Earl survived.

Wellington chose a ridge known as Mont St Jean as his defensive line. It allowed him to hide his troops on its reverse slope (one of his favourite tactics) and to give them some protection from the French artillery. On the left of his line stood the farm of La Haye Sainte and on the right the Chateau Hougoumont, both of which he identified as key to the outcome of the battle. The whole front was less than one and a half miles across – not long – which made it easier to defend.

Some of the allied troops, notably the infantry divisions under the command of General Cooke had left their stations further north at three in the morning of 16 June, marched twenty seven miles to Quatre Bras, spent a cold, wet night in the open after several hours’ fighting, withdrawn to Mont St Jean under enemy attack and spent another wet night in the rain, before the battle even began. The lucky ones found ‘biscuit’ – a form of barely edible hard tack – or a mouthful of rancid beef to eat. The rest went hungry, and so did their officers.

The first shots were fired at 11.00 am on the 18th June. The French artillery pounded the allied positions, their much-vaunted cavalry launched charge after charge at the allied infantry, who protected themselves by ‘forming square’ with bayonets pointing outwards to deter the French horses from coming too close. La Haye Sainte was held until the garrison ran out of ammunition, Hougoumont survived five concerted attacks, bombardments, a fire which destroyed the chateau, and the loss of 1,500 men killed or wounded. It was held thoughout the day. The centre of the allied line was never broken despite continual cavalry and infantry attacks, and ferocious artillery bombardments.

During this bloodiest of battles – estimated casualties were 23,000 allied and 25,000 French – there were many stories of individual heroism. And in the midst of the slaughter there were also acts of chivalry. Outside Hougoumont, for example, a French colonel was knocked off his horse and lay on the ground at the mercy of the defenders’ muskets. Seeing he was defenceless, they allowed him to escape.

Throughout the day, Wellington placed himself in danger by riding up and down along his lines, issuing orders and giving encouragement. Many of his staff were killed or wounded, but both he and his beloved horse, Copenhagen, survived unscathed. The sight of their commander at the forefront of the battle must surely have given heart to the allied troops.

Late in the day, the gallant septuagenarian General Blucher arrived on Napoleon’s right and attacked the French flank with his Prussians. Soon afterwards, Napoleon launched his ‘invincible’ Imperial Guard (his ‘jeunes filles’, who wore pigtails and earrings as badges of office) at the centre of the allied line. When they were put to flight by the light artillery and infantry Wellington had kept hidden behind the ridge, the battle was over.

Napoleon was taken by carriage to Paris and ended his days on the remote island of St Helena in the Atlantic. Wellington returned to England a hero.

Wellington said, famously, that it had been ‘a damned close run thing’ – and so it had. Until the evening of the 18th June, the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was in the balance – if anything the French had the upper hand for most of that long and bloody day. Napoleon, to be sure, made mistakes, but in the end it was the steadfastness of the British soldiers under fire and the selfless courage of their officers that won the Battle of Waterloo.

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13 nov 2019

Wellington died aged 83 in 1852. His state funeral was held in London on 18 November.

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