Duke of Wellington Battle of Waterloo 1815

The Duke of Wellington Battle of Waterloo 1815

The Duke of Wellington, born Arthur Wellesley, rose to glorious fame fighting Napoleon in the Peninsular Campaign in 1813. He was to lead the Allied forces to victory then and was able to watch Napoleon be sent into exile on Elba in 1814. He led a strong army and must have thought it a job well done. However history was about to take a different course in the Spring of 1815 when the Duke of Wellington found himself on the battlefield at Waterloo.

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Napoleon’s escape from Elba

On the night of the 7th March 1815, a dispatch was received in Vienna. It announced that Napoleon had escaped from Elba the week before. By the 10th March, evading all attempts by the authorities to arrest him, Napoleon appeared at Lyons, announcing that he had come to save the French from degradation and that his ‘eagles’ once more upon the wing, would soon alight on the spires of Notre Dame in Paris.

Duke of Wellington

Napoleon Leaving Elbe 26 Feb 1815 by Joseph Beaume

Napoleon returns to power

France was in a turmoil and the Revolutionary Militant was once more enthroned. The sovereigns of Europe assembled at Vienna, were outraged, they proclaimed Napoleon an outlaw, a disturber of the peace of the world. They ordered a mobilisation of the continent’s armies and appointed the Duke of Wellington to command the advance guard in the low countires, the gateway to the plains of France. He was to hold there, until the enormous armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia could reach him.

The army that had served in the Peninsular had been demobbed, so every man that could be raised from Britain was and sent to Flanders. The drums of war were beating once again.

‘The British Infantry are the best in the world, unfortunately there are not many of them’
Marshal Bugeaud

The buildup to the Battle of Waterloo looms

On the night of the 15th June, Wellington and many other important dignitaries, attended a ball in Brussels. It was apparent to many who attended that something was up. Wellington was seen engrossed in discussions, signing orders and his officers left early. By the early hours, the streets were filled by drums beating and troops gathering. They were filled with a positive air, something the locals took as a good sign. The hot summer sun beat down on the troops as they converged at the meeting point. They had walked through the beech forests and it was only upon emerging from the cover of the tree line and onto the plain that bounded the Sambre river to the north that they heard the dull thud of artillery and saw columns of smoke.

The Battle of Waterloo June 18th 1815

On the summer afternoon of June 17th 1815, Brussels was in a state of panic. The Allied troops had walked through the beech forests and it was only upon emerging from the cover of the tree line and onto the plain that bounded the Sambre river to the north that they heard the dull thud of artillery and saw columns of smoke. Napoleon had managed to cross the Sambre and get between Bulcher’s troops positioned on Wellingtons right and divide them.Divide and rule was his tactic to getting into Brussels. This, he thought, would ensure a capitulation by the Dutch and a collapse of the British government. He was certain that all would fall into his lap.

The eve of the Battle of Waterloo and confusion abounds

To the south of Brussels, the Duke of Wellington was in charge of 21,000 British troops and 42,000 German and Dutch troops, who were barring the way of 70,000 veteran troops, led by Napoleon. Fugitives from the battlefield poured into the town, each recanting a different story, Napoleon was defeated, Napoleon was victorious. The roads and waterways were jammed full of people fleeing. The roadside littered with men sporting blood soaked clothes and bandages. Rumour that Napoleon had promised his troops that they could sack the city brought terror too the women and children there. What a contrast to the city of gaiety and partying three weeks earlier. The great armies under Wellington had held the French at bay. The Prussian army of 113,000 men, had under Blucher, joined to hold the frontier from Ardennes to Charleroi. The British, Dutch, Hanoverian and Brunswick armies held the line from Mons to the North Sea under the Duke of Wellington. Never before had so many men been on the move. It is estimated that over half a million were making their way, British veterans from Spain and America, made their way to join Wellington. Their skills needed to bolster the young inexperienced troops fresh from Britain.

Duke of Wellington Waterloo

1816 Map of the Battle of Waterloo Battle field

It had seemed that Napoleons base was crumbling but in fact the opposite was true. Link to the map above from Australian Government digital collections to explore in more detail.

The night before the final day at the Battle of Waterloo June 18th 1815

At Quatre Bras, Marshal Ney, who had said Napoleon should be brought to Paris in a cage, was trying to defeat a weak Dutch force at the crossroads, who were preserving front line communication between the Prussians and the British Dutch alliance. It was a fierce and bloody spell of fighting in which the Picton Highlanders bravely fought and the Duke of Brunswick fell. Wellington and his men of 30,000 troops managed to hold the crossroads, he did not however manage to join Blucher in battle at Ligny against Napoleon. The 63,000 Frenchmen stood against 80,000 Prussians. There were 15,000 casualties but the Prussians managed to escape total annihilation because of incompetence in Napoleons troops. Whilst he had indeed sapped the strength of the opposing troops, the two groups had in fact managed to keep in touch. Wellington fell back towards Brussels covered by Lord Uxbridge’s cavalry and horse artillery. Wellington now concentrated his army on the ridge of Mont St Jean. Napoleon meanwhile was caught in the midst of a torrential storm and in a typically Flanders way, the troops became bogged down in the fields of Flanders.

The day of the 18th June dawned. The men were tired, wet and cold. Their weapons dirty and wet. Wellington rode down the lines, his mood positive because he knew he held the high ground quite literally and all he had to do was to continue to hold it until the remainder of Bulcher’s forces arrived in support. Wellington knew this ridge from another time when, twenty one years previously he had been part of another campaign where the ridge had held significance. If Wellington could hold the ridge he thought the allies could sweep Napoleon back to France.

The Duke of Wellington was the greatest master of defensive tactics in Europe.

He had chosen the perfect position for attack and cover. The beech forest would he decided, give his troops cover should they have to escape Napoleon. He was concerned about his troops. He was missing his regular troops, half of those under his command were foreign and unable to manoeuvre in the expected way. Some where reluctant to fight against Napoleon, others mere boys, all poorly armed. Fewer than an 1/8th of  Wellington’s troops were front line seasoned men. He determined to use them wisely and despite opposition make each unit as international as possible. In a fascinating example of this Wellington wore the cockades of all the Allies in his hat and forbade the singing of ‘Rule Britannia’ at concerts. He wanted the troops to think of themselves as an international force.

Duke of Wellington battle of Waterloo

The spine of Wellington’s army consisted f 21,000 regular British army soldiers, though many had not been under fire and the King’s German Legion. It was Cavalry rich, Infantry poor but what a fine spectacle it made, to see the Cavalry on fine horses ridden as for the most energetic hunt. There was little discipline amongst them though. Wellington was well supported in artillery but it was infantry he so desperately needed. He carefully manoeuvred them using them wisely. Wellington would be joined by Bulcher on his left but he felt anxious about his right and set about securing it in a defensive plan of great skill. He fortified an estate, Hougoumont, which without its position being held by him, Napoleon could not move on the right. Wellington continued to deploy his troops so that the French would have to advance through zones of fire.

Napoleon wasted no time in gathering his troops to advance. He rode amongst his troops, “Vive l’Empereur” he shouted. Napoleon was fixated on this attack, it would be revenge for all the humiliations the British had piled on him. Wellington was the only commander of might, who Napoleon had not defeated. He harangued his chief of staff

“You think him a great general! I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad troops and that this will be a picnic”

It is amusing that the French were hours late at their marshaling point because they were out searching for food but Napoleon was not concerned, he wanted the ground to dry out before he ventured forth. Sometime just before lunch, the first shots rang out at the estate of Hougoumont so wisely ofrtified by Wellington. The British inflicted great damage on the French in these opening gambits, attack after attack came but Wellington succeeded in keeping them off with little loss to the Allied troops. At one o’clock it had been Napoleons intention to launch his main attack but to his horror he saw the arrival of the Prussians. He had been trumped.

Duke of Wellington

Castle of Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo

Napoleon decided to continue with the attack. He would take on the British and then deal with Bulchers Prussian troops. The French bombardment was brutal but took relatively few casualties. The French drove on, battalions driving up the hill, followed by companies of sappers. They swept upwards and outwards, driving back two companies of rifles. At the centre 8000 French troops faced one volley from hysterical Belgian troops who then turned on their heel but the British stood firm and held their fire until the French were upon them when they unleashed a volley, fixed bayonets and attacked. Lord Uxbridge lead the Household Brigade in person, the flashing red coats drove the French back into the artillery, more than 4000 were taken or cut down. Once let loose they behaved as though following the scent of a fox, they clattered into the French and were pursued to their deaths. Wellington’s Cavalry destroyed.

The Prussians were dragging their heels but Bulcher pushed the point;

I have promised Wellington, you would not have me break my word

The Duke of Wellington’s brave men

The French came back again, with accurate range, the bullets found their target and Wellington withdrew his infantry. The French then did an odd thing, they attacked the ridge with cavalry, the ensuing battle was a strategic moment in the battle as discipline at last won out, the Squares held each waiting for their orders before opening fire. Wellington waited for his moment to push the French off the ridge. Like all good predators he exerted as little energy as was possible waiting for the foe to fall exhausted. Over and over again Wellington repulsed the onslaught, over and over again the French responded. At one time 9000 horses drove up the ridge to face hundreds and hundreds of dead horses and men. It was late afternoon and the stoicism of the English troops was remarkable. The men at the Hougoumont Estate showed equal courage.

It was late in the afternoon, the onslaught from the French continued but still the red coats remained standing. Napoleon however had a chance of victory as the young Prince of Orange made several tactical errors by deploying several battalions exposing them to the French cavalry. It was, potentially a point at which Napoleon could emerge victorious. His tactics and courage seemed to fail him and instead of driving home his advantage, he held back, giving Wellington time to muster all the troops he could. The Duke of Wellington was one of the only Allied leaders left standing and he took  over command. The French leaders in turn, began to take the initiative and the battle became a bloodbath. So many men were falling, with the injured passing to the rear, that it seemed to many that the British were in retreat. The truth was the exact opposite and Wellington remained calm as he waited for the Prussians to come in support.

Napoleon’s secret weapons

In the early evening Napoleon launched his secret weapon, fresh battalions of the old guard. With these he took Plancenoit, a critical position. Napoleon drew alongside his troops who were inspired by his presence, calling ‘Vive ‘eEmpereur’.

Napoleon turned the Guard on the British centre but Wellington anticipated such a blow and such was his skill, narrowed the front through which the French could pass. He ordered his men to lie low until the French appeared and then sprung on them a terrible volley. There was confusion on both sides, daylight was failing, exhausted and wounded men confused by the noise, mistook orders. The men leading the battalions had to think on their feet. Daring do though, won the day, after charge and counter charge, the British line on the ridge began to advance. Wellington, his hat held aloft rode from unit to unit urging them forwards. The dying sun filtered through the smoke of the battlefield upon a retreating French army. The Old Guard fought on giving Napoleon time to escape.

The brave Lord Uxbridge caught a volley in one of the last battles of the day. He was hit in his right leg, necessitating its amputation above the knee. According to anecdote, he was close to the Duke of Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, to which Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!”

Duke of Wellington Waterloo

The amputation of Lord Uxbridge’s leg at Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington turned his horse towards Waterloo and the ridge he had held for the entire day of the battle. The battlefield contained the bodies of 45,000 fallen men, 15,000 British troops lay on the Flanders field.

Aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo

Three weeks after the battle the British army entered Paris, ironically 400 years after they had last done so, after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Napoleon had fled. The British did not see themselves as victors. They did not subjugate the French as the Prussians, Russians and Austrians did. They treated French property and people with respect. The British had put down tyranny abroad and now needed to turn their attention back to their home country as the victory against the French was short lived in the reality of its aftermath. The National Army Museum have launched Waterloo 200, to commemorate the 200 year anniversary.

The Massacre of Waterloo

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