The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.
The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but he made the same mistake that Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset. General Winter.
For months Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered Moscow itself in September, with the Russian winter right around the corner. He expected capitulation. Instead, he got more scorched earth.
Finally there was no choice for the Grand Armée, but to turn about and go home. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman River on June 24. By mid-December there were fewer than 70,000 known survivors.
The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King, Louis VXIII. That would last 111 days, until Napoleon reappeared at the head of another army.
The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815. Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his rule.
Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.
Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under the Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.
It rained all day and night that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon while Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of Napoleon’s grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge.
Fighting was furious around Wellington’s forward bastions, the walled stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haie Sainte on his left. Eight times, French infantry swarmed over the orchards and outbuildings of the stone farmhouses, only to be beat back.
Most of the French reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. 9,000 horsemen in 67 squadrons charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.
It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world. Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.
Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000-man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never before defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.
The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver and then fall back. Retreat broke into a route, someone shouting “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannonballs fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the leg. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”
According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was complete. Bonaparte was once again captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena. He died there in 1821.
Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million, at a time when the entire world population was about 980 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great. Combined.