Battle of Waterloo

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The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo took place on June 18, 1815 in Belgium. It marked the end of The Hundred Days, Napoleon's attempt at regaining power after his initial defeat and exile the previous year.

Once the United Kingdom's 67,000-strong army, under the Duke of Wellington, had forced a precarious stalemate against Napoleon's 73,000, Field Marshal Blucher's Prussian forces arrived and were able to achieve decisive numerical superiority, forcing Napoleon out.

The battle marked the end of Napoleon's reign and his exile to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.

Contents

Preliminary

Napoleon's return from Elba marked the beginning of The Hundred Days and on March 18, 1815 he was declared an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna. This marked the mobilization of the Seventh Coalition armies. The British formed an army consisting of British, Nassau and Dutch troops. The Prussians created two armies, one under Prince Blucher and another under General Kliest with Prussian, and North German allied states. Russia assembled an army of 250,000 men under Prince Barcley de Tolly and the Austrians provided two additional armies under General Schwarzenburg and Archduke Charles. The King of Spain assembled an army placing it under English officers and began moving to the frontier.

The Waterloo Campaign

Napoleon began a massive call up and soon had L'Armée Du Nord (The Army of the North) prepared. The Army of the North was about 117,000 strong. This was moved with great stealth to the northern border of Belgium. In this area the British had assembled an army of some 97,000 and the Prussians another army of 105,000. Both allied armies had been spread out in an effort to be easier on the population they depended on for assistance.

Wellington's Army

Wellington led an multinational army that he would describe as "an infamous army, very weak and ill equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff".[1] It was in no case more than 30% British, the rest coming from the Neatherlands, Hanover, Nassau, and Brunswick. The Duke of Wellington would express reservations about the loyality of some of his troops, but in point of fact all of his troops would give outstanding performances in battle.

The Prussian Army

The Prussian army was in the throes of reorganization as its reserve regiments became line regiments along with many of the previous 1814 Landwehr regiments and its artillery was also reorganizing and would not perform at peak level, though its militia, the Landwehr, was significantly better than other militias.[2] It was under the command of Blücher, though in fact much of its operation was directed by his chief-of-staff, Gneisenau, who greatly distrusted Wellington.[3] Two and a half Prussian army corps or 48,000 men, were engaged in the battle by about 18:00. (Two brigades under Friedrich von Bülow, commander of the IV Corps, attacked Lobau at 16:30, Georg von Pirch's II Corps and parts of Graf von Ziethen's I Corps engaged at about 18:00.)

June 16th

Despite the efforts at deception by the French to hide their whereabouts, the Prussians quickly understood where the French army was and proceeded to interfere with it. The Prussian 1st Corp began an all day delaying effort while the Prussian army assembled. The British army was somewhat slower to react as Wellington's spy network was either interfered with or was actively giving him disinformation. Lord Wellington did not begin assembly of his army until the evening.

Battle of Quatre-Bras

Marshall Ney in command of the French Army's left wing marched to Quatre-Bras and found it defended by Dutch units who were determined to hold their ground. The Prince of Orange arrived and disregarded orders to retreat, choosing to reinforce the position. Marshall Ney believing that he was facing far more troops than was the case was tentative in his attacks at first. Lord Wellington was rushing formations to assist with all speed. As evening fell the British forces outnumbered the French and the position was held.

Battle of Ligny

Napoleon had wished to attack the British first, but this was impossible as the Prussians were by now already assembled with 3/4 of their forces in and around the village of Ligny. In a four hour battle Napoleon would earn his last victory. The Prussian position was a strong one, but the execution of the dispositions was poor. The Prussian left was strongly held by the III Corps, but was never in danger given the marshy ground in front of it. The Prussian center and right contained the intermingled I and II Corps with the right strung out waiting for Wellington's army that would never show up. After several repulses, Napoleon launched the combinded Guard at the Prussian center. Despite several counter attacks, the center fell and the battle was won by the French. The carnage was great with 11,000 French and 22,000 Prussians lost on the field. A great deal of the Prussian losses were deserters from formations recruited from newly aqquired lands by the Kingdom of Prussia. The retreat of the Prussians was never interrupted, and was seemingly unnoticed by the French.[4] By nightfall, at about 2100, almost all of the Prussian formations had left the field. On the Prussian right, Lieutenant-General Ziethen's I Corps retreated slowly with most of its artillery, leaving a rearguard close to Brye to slow the French pursuit. On the left, Lieutenant-General Thielemann's III Corps retreated unharmed, leaving a strong rearguard at Sombreffe. The bulk of the rearguard held their positions until about midnight, before following the rest of the retreating army. In fact, Zieten's 1st Corps rearguard units only left the battlefield in the early morning of 17 June, as the exhausted French failed to press on.[5] Napoleon, thinking Ney had already seized Quatre-Bras, ordered Ney to strike Blucher's right flank and complete the victory. But Ney's procrastination at Quatre-Bras had ruined the opportunity.[6] Pirchs II Corps followed the 1st Corp off the battlefield and Thielemans III Corps moved last with the armies various parks in tow. It should be noted that the last of III Corps was moved in the morning completely ignored. [7] Von Bülow's IV Corps moved south of Wavre and setup strong rear guard positions for the army to quickly reasemble.[8] General Blücher was already in communications with General Wellington. Great though the victory was (as the Prussians had more men on the field than the French) it contained all the seeds for the eventual defeat at Waterloo. While the Prussians were defeated they were not routed and proceeded to calmly march off the battlefield with some units not leaving until the next morning. This left a organized and determined army ready to act against the French army.

June 17th

This day saw the British forces move to the Mont Saint-Jean (Waterloo) position and prepare to receive the French attack. The Prussian Army moved to the Village of Wavre with all 4 corps now assembled.

June 18th

Map-6.jpg

Wellington's deployment

Wellington worked his normal deployment using reverse slopes to hide the majority of his units behind the crest of the ridge that defined the British position. In addition he fortified the farm house complex of La Haye Sainte in front of his position to the right of his line. The left of the line was held by the fortified positions of Hougoumont and Papelotte. This secured the road by which Wellington expected the Prussian to arrive.[9]

The battle begins

Wellington's dispatches give the start of the battle at 10am other sources would have it at 11.30am. (This will be a recurring issue throughout the battle with the actual time of events being disputed by the participents as well as by later historians.)[10]

The arrival of the Prussians IV Corps: Plancenoit

The first Prussian corp to arrive was the IV Corps and its objective was Plancenoit as a launch point into the rear of the French positions. It was Blücher's intention to secure his left upon Frichermont using the Bois de Paris road. [11] Blücher and Wellington had been exchanging communications since 10:00am and had agreed to this advance on Frichermont if Wellington's centre was under attack.[12][13] General Bülow noted that Plancenoit lay open and that the time was 4:30pm.[11] At about this time the 15th Brigade IV Corps linked up with the Nassauers of Wellington's left flank with the brigade artillery, horse artillery deployed to the left in support.[14] Napoleon sent Lobau's Division to intercept Bülow's IV Corps. Therefore Napoleon sent his 10-battalion-strong Young Guard to beat the Prussians back. The 15th Brigade threw Lobau's troops out of Frichermont with a determined bayonet charge. The 15th proceeded up the Frichermont heights battering French Chasseurs with 12 pounder artillery fire and pushed on to Plancenoit. Napoleon had dispatched the entire 8 battalions of Young Guard and 2 battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce Lobau's Division. Hiller's 16th Brigade had 6 battalions available and pushed forward to attempt to take Plancenoit. The Young Guard counter-attacked and after very hard fighting, the Young Guard recaptured Plancenoit but were themselves counter-attacked and driven out.[15] Napoleon sent two battalions of the Old Guard and after ferocious bayonet fighting - they did not deign to fire their muskets - they recaptured the village.[15] The dogged Prussians were still not beaten, and approximately 30,000 troops under Bülow and Pirch attacked Plancenoit again. It was defended by 20,000 Frenchmen in and around the village.

Prussian advance

Throughout the late afternoon, Zieten's I Corps had been arriving in greater strength in the area just north of Le Haye. This allowed Wellington to reinforce his centre in time to repulse Napoleon's attack. At the time the French Guard was being repulsed from the British centre, the Prussian I Corps was breaking through the French centre. [16] By 19:30, the French position was bent into a rough horseshoe shape. The ends of the U were now based on Hougoumont on the French left, Plancenoit on the French right, and the centre on La Haye.[17] The French had retaken the positions of La Haye and Papelotte in a series of attacks by General Durette's Division.[17] Oberst von Hofmann's 24th regiment led an advance towards La Haye and Papelotte; the French forces retreated behind Smohain without contesting the advance.[17] The 24th Regiment advanced against the new French position but was seen off after some early success. The Silesian Schützen and the F/1st Landwehr moved up in support as the 24th regiment returned to the attack.[18] The French fell back before the renewed assault without much of an attempt at defense. At this point, the French began to seriously contest ground, attempting to regain Smohain and hold on to the ridgeline along Papelotte and the last few houses of Papelotte.[18] The 24th Regiment linked up with a Highlander battalion on its far right. Determined attacks by the 24th Regiment and the 13th Landwehr regiment with cavalry support threw the French out of these positions and further attacks by the 13th Landwehr and the 15th brigade expelled them from Fichermont.[19] Durutte’s division was beginning to unravel under the assaults when General Zieten’s I Corps cavalry poured through the gap.[20] Durutte's division, finding itself about to be charged by massed cavalry of Ziethen's I Corps cavalry reserve, retreated quickly from the battlefield. I Corps then attained the Brussels road and the only line of retreat available to the French.

The Capture of Plancenoit

At about the same time, the Prussians were pushing through Plancenoit, in the third assault of the day upon the town.[20] The Prussian 5th, 14th, and 16th brigades, were involved in the attack.[20] Each Prussian brigade would be about 9 battalions strong, roughly the size of a French division. The church was fully involved in a fire, with house to house fighting leaving bodies from both sides lying about.[21] The French Guard battalions, a Guard Chasseur and 1/2e Grenadiers were identified as holding the position. Virtually all of the Young Guard was now involved in the defence, along with remnants of Lobau's Division.[22] The key to the position proved to be the woods to the south of Plancenoit. The 25th regiment's musketeer battalions threw the 1/2e Grenadiers (Old Guard) out of the Chantelet woods, flanking Plancenoit and forcing a retreat.[20] The Prussians IV Corps advanced beyond Plancenoit to find masses of French retreating in a jumbled mass from pursuing British units.[23] The Prussians were unable to fire for fear of hitting allied units. It was now seen that the French right, left, and centre, were failing.[23]

Disintegration

The whole of the French front started to disintegrate under the general advance of Wellington's army and the Prussians following the capture of Plancenoit.[24] The last coherent French force consisted of two battalions of the Old Guard stationed around the inn called La Belle Alliance. This was a final reserve and a personal bodyguard for Napoleon. For a time, Napoleon hoped that if they held firm, the French army could rally behind them.[25] But as the retreat turned into a rout, they were forced to withdraw and form squares as protection against the leading elements of allied cavalry. They formed two squares, one on either side of La Belle Alliance. Until he was persuaded that the battle was lost and he should leave, Napoleon commanded the square which was formed on rising ground to the (French) left of the inn.[26][27] The Prussians engaged the square to the (French) right, and General Adam's Brigade charged the square on the right, forcing it to withdraw.[28] As dusk fell, both squares retreated away from the battlefield towards France in relatively good order, but the French artillery and everything else fell into the hands of the Allies and Prussians. The retreating Guards were surrounded by thousands of fleeing Frenchmen who were no longer part of any coherent unit. Allied cavalry harried the fleeing French until about 11:00pm. The Prussians, led by General von Gneisenau, pursued them as far as Genappe before ordering a halt. By that point, some 78 guns had been captured along with about 2,000 prisoners, including more Generals.[29] At Genappe, Napoleon's carriage was found abandoned still containing diamonds left in the rush. These became part of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia's crown jewels, one Major Keller of the F/15th receiving the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves for the feat.[30]

Notes and conclusions

By November 20th, 1815 the Treaty of Paris was signed bringing an end to the Hundred Days. Of the leading Generals only the Duke of Wellington would survive more than a dozen years. Blucher would pass away within 4 years; Bulow von Deniwitz would beat him to the grave. Napoleon would spend his final years writing from St. Helens railing against the failure of others that had led him to such a fate. What happened?

  • Napoleon showed his old flash of brilliance assembling a large army and launching it to attack the Prussian army at Ligny. This was the French army of old, artillery moved with speed and daring to support the infantry and the Guard used in mass to seal a victory.
  • What happened after defies explanation; there was not a pursuit after either Qutra Bra or Ligny of any sort worth mentioning. Instead of breath taking relentless pursuit of Jena there was a 24 hour pause. A bloodied but by no means defeated Prussian army moved with speed and deliberation to reorganize and with its less reliable elements running away it was a hard core of an army that would henceforth battle in its best traditions.
  • Again the British army was allowed to move off without the slightest bother from the French. The Duke of Wellington made excellent use of the time.
  • The Duke's use of reverse slopes and most of all the intelligent use of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont diverted large formations from important tasks without bothering much of the allied army.
  • It was apparent that neither Marshall Grouchy nor Napoleon had any idea where the mass of the Prussian army was. Marshall Grouchy didn't have the forces available to achieve the outcome Napoleon desired and detaching him only served to keep 33,000 desperately needed men from Napoleon's main effort
  • It was at the end of the Battle of Waterloo watching 3 main points of the French army positions being overrun that Napoleon understood that his days of Empire were forever over.

Sources

  • Chesny, Charles A: Waterloo Lectures:A Study Of The Campaign Of 1815 ISBN 1428649883
  • Hofschröer, Peter: 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory;Greenhill Books (London); ISBN 1-85367-368-4

Footnotes

  1. Longford, p.485
  2. Barbero, p.39
  3. Barbero, p.21
  4. Chesney, Charles C., Waterloo Lectures:A Study of the Campaign Of 1815 p136 IBSN 1428649883
  5. Chesney, Charles C., Waterloo Lectures:A Study of the Campaign Of 1815 p136 IBSN 1428649883
  6. Dupuy & Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, 1977, Pg. 767
  7. Chesney, Charles C., Waterloo Lectures:A Study of the Campaign Of 1815 p136 IBSN 1428649883
  8. Chesney, Charles C., Waterloo Lectures:A Study of the Campaign Of 1815 p136 IBSN 1428649883
  9. Barbero, p.141, p.235
  10. Wellesley, Arthur Wellington's Dispatches 19 June 1815
  11. 11.0 11.1 Hofschröer References p. 116
  12. Hofschröer References p. 95
  13. Chasney, Waterloo Lectures p-165
  14. Hofschröer References p. 117
  15. 15.0 15.1 Hofschröer References p. 122
  16. Hofschröer References p. ?
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Hofschröer References p. 139
  18. 18.0 18.1 Hofschröer References p. 140
  19. Hofschröer References p. ?
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Hofschröer References p. 144
  21. Hofschröer References p. ?
  22. Hofschröer References p. ?
  23. 23.0 23.1 References p. 145
  24. Hofschröer References p. 146
  25. http://home.iprimus.com.au/cpcook/letters/pages/waterfini.htm
  26. http://www.napoleonbonaparte.nl/newspaper/dedham/drouet.html
  27. http://www.standin.se/fifteen15a.htm
  28. Hofschröer References p. 149
  29. Hofschröer References p. 150
  30. Hofschröer References p. 151
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