"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." ~ Santayana

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Battle of Waterloo

In 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia. The campaign resulted in much of the French army being destroyed. In the period following the loss, during the War of the Sixth Coalition, the Coalition of Europe defeated France several times on the battlefield before Napoleon abdicated his throne on April 6, 1814. He was exiled to the island of Elba while Louis the 16th became king of France. Napoleon escaped from Elba; however, reaching Europe in 1815, he gathered an army about him and once again called himself emperor of France. Louis left France. The Great Powers of Europe, consisting of England, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and their allies, declared Bonaparte an outlaw. All these events led to war, culminating with the Battle of Waterloo. Three armies fought at Waterloo, Napoleon’s, Arthur Wesley’s Multi-national army, and a Prussian army under Blucher. Napoleon had 72,000 men while his enemies had 118,000 men. These numbers perhaps show just how daring the Emperor was.

After understanding the precursor to the battle, it is important to understand what the battlefield and troop positions were. Waterloo consisted of a long ridge Running east, west, perpendicular to, and bisecting the main road to Brussels. Along the ridge ran the Ohain road. Wesley placed his infantry behind the crest of the ridge following the Ohain, using the reverse slope of the ridge to conceal the strength of his army from the French. In front of the ridge were the three positions that could be fortified. On the extreme right were the Ch√Ęteau, orchard, and gardens of Hougoumont, which were largely concealed by trees. On the extreme left was the hamlet of Papelotte. Arthur Wesley fortified both before the battle. On the opposite side of the road there was a disused sand quarry where Wesley placed the 95th riffles. The Prussians would arrive later during the battle to reinforce the troops at Papelotte. Because Napoleon could not see his adversaries’ lines, he positioned his army along another ridge to the south symmetrically to the Brussels road.

Wesley recorded in his dispatches that at "about ten o'clock [Napoleon] commenced a furious attack upon our post at Hougoumont" The fighting continued around the house the whole afternoon until Napoleon ordered it to be shelled and burned. At 11:50, at another part of the battle, Napoleon’s artillery, numbering eighty guns, opened fire across the battlefield. They were highly ineffective, however, as the ground was soft from the rain on the previous day making the cannon balls unable to bounce and instead just sink into the mud. At 2:00 the French infantry began to attack. To the French left flank Wesley’s line started to weaken, to the right, both sides were damaged badly. Observing how the flank was beginning to crumble, General Uxbridge ordered a British cavalry charge. Two brigades of cavalry quickly rushed over the ridge and attacked the French. Napoleon’s front lines routed away from the flashing sabers and the Emperor hastily ordered a counter-charge. The British had become disorderly, attacking everything within sight. The French had an easy time tearing them apart with their cavalry. The battle continued to rage on with more charges and retreats until the Prussians arrived.

It was 4:30 when the first Prussian reinforcements arrived. They flanked Napoleon and engaged in brutal combat with the bayonet. The French line could not hold against this new attack for long. Slowly, Blucher forced the French back. The combined attacks of the Coalition destroyed what was left of the enemy’s morale. As his men began to rout, Napoleon fought with his bodyguard against the advancing brigades of Blucher and Wesley. Attempts to rally the men failed, and Napoleon was forced to retreat from the battle with a terrible defeat.

Four days after Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated his throne. Napoleon was imprisoned on Saint Helena until he died in 1821. The series of wars that had consumed Europe since the French Revolution ceased. The treaty of Paris was signed, resulting in the boundaries of France being returned to where they were in 1790. Overall, The Battle of Waterloo put an end to Napoleon’s reign, allowing Europe to start to rebuild itself.

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