- James Houser
June 18, 1815 - The Battle of Waterloo
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 18, 1815. Three armies are on a collision course near a little Belgian town called Waterloo. What follows is the final defeat of one of history’s greatest military leaders, the end of an age and the birth of one of the modern world’s most persistent myths.
I want to start with a rant, because that’s always how my best posts start. The average person’s knowledge of Napoleon typically boils down to a couple of tidbits: that he was short, that he invaded Russia, and he lost at Waterloo. This is a major discredit to one of the most fascinating, complex, and brilliant individuals in history, but it is possible to oversell Napoleon. I’ll start by busting some myths.
As for being short, far from being the “angry little man” of cartoons, Napoleon was about my height – 5’6”. Yes, I’m short, but I’m not *that* short, and for Napoleon’s time he was about average height. The French and British had different methods of measuring in those days, and the French “inch” was slightly longer than the British inch. In French inches Napoleon was 5’2.” His soldiers also gave him the affectionate nickname of “le Petit Corporal” – the little corporal – not a jab at his height but an acknowledgment that he liked to lead from the front. When these factors were combined, British propaganda seized on them to make their enemy look like a pipsqueak, which is why the perception lingers today.
Which introduces us, incidentally, to our theme: propaganda and how it reinforces historical memory. But we’ll get to that.
The other discredit to Napoleon is that he is most commonly known in pop culture for his two largest defeats – the invasion of Russia and Waterloo. This is critical because it undersells *why* it was such a big deal that Napoleon was beaten. The answer, of course, is that he was the greatest commander of his age and stands a good chance of being the greatest commander of *any* age, his only serious competition being Alexander, Genghiz Khan or Hannibal. This is not just historical opinion: people in Napoleon’s day were scared shitless of fighting him because of his well-earned reputation. From his first emergence in 1793 during the French Revolution, Napoleon won every single campaign and beat every single opponent he faced until he invaded Russia in 1812. That’s almost 19 years where the man looked unstoppable. He fought almost 60 battles in that timeframe, and only lost a handful – and when he did lose, he came back harder and stronger to win in the end.
It was a big deal that Napoleon was beaten because Napoleon was the reigning champion of warfare in his time. He was not just brilliant, but innovative and aggressive, and hand-picked his own set of generals that reflected his way of fighting. He moved FAST, and hit you from three directions at once before you even realized how close he was. You attacked his army, only to realize midway through the battle that you had down exactly what he wanted, and Napoleon was about to close his trap. He was also a great improviser, thought on his feet, and could see the whole battlefield in his head. His soldiers adored and nearly worshiped him, even when he didn’t deserve it. In short, to many people in his own time and since, Napoleon was the Ace – a perfect general.
Even his mistakes scared them, like the way he had lost his entire army in Russia only to bounce back in a matter of months and beat the stuffing out of Russia and Prussia in 1813. To beat Napoleon in 1813, it took three countries – Austria, Prussia, and Russia – with three times the number of troops and four times the artillery to pin Napoleon with his back to a river at Leipzig and beat him over and over again for four days until his army finally broke. And even then he was still dangerous until he finally abdicated. Then, after they thought they had finally beaten him for good, Napoleon returned to his throne, the French nation welcomed him back with open arms, and he immediately started rebuilding an army. Forget the Ace, forget the master: he must have seemed like some sort of supernatural demon.
So when the Duke of Wellington, with his improvised and outnumbered army of British, Dutch, and Germans, confronted the Emperor Napoleon on the morning of June 18, 1815, that was who he faced: not the guy that we with the comfort of hindsight know is going to lose, but the man all of Europe thought of as the God of War. The Emperor Napoleon, with his *grande armee.* But Wellington had decided to stand and fight, and that’s what he would do. He had one ace up his sleeve: his Prussian ally, Marshal Blucher, who had promised to come to his rescue. Wellington just had to hold out until Blucher arrived. If Blucher wasn’t coming…well, Wellington trusted his friend, and he was willing to bet his army on it.
Who was Wellington? I’m kind of a fan of Wellington as well, so I’ll break him down. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was an Anglo-Irish minor nobleman who had made a good military career fighting in India before his return to Europe after Napoleon had already become Emperor. By the time Wellington showed up on the world stage, Napoleon dominated Europe. Wellington was sent to Spain with Britain’s only army to help the Spanish and Portuguese resist French domination, and from 1807 to 1814 won victory after victory against some of Napoleon’s best generals – but never the man himself. Napoleon had never fought Wellington until Waterloo, but many of his generals had.
Wellington was in many ways the polar opposite of Napoleon. Where Napoleon was energetic, sarcastic, and aggressive, Wellington was icy, polite and balanced. The Duke was famous for his stoic nature, almost snobbish reserve, and simple confidence and competence. Napoleon was famous for taking risks; Wellington was famous for making sure he had won his battles before they even began. Napoleon’s troops loved him; Wellington’s troops respected, followed and trusted him, but never loved him. These two men, possibly the two greatest generals alive in 1815, were about to test their qualities.
As Napoleon observed the British position – a long infantry line just behind the lip of a ridge, Wellington’s favorite “reverse slope” defense – Marshal Soult, his Chief of Staff, explained Wellington’s tactics. Soult had fought Wellington often in Spain, and told Napoleon to be cautious. Napoleon dismissed him. “Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he's a good general. I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast."
For all I’ve just talked up his skill, I now have to say that Waterloo was Napoleon’s worst-fought battle. There are many reasons for this. Napoleon had beaten Blucher’s Prussians two days before, and considered them the more serious threat, so his guard was down. He also hated and disrespected the British, and so constantly underestimated them. His best commanders weren’t available, and his chief subordinate on the field – Marshal Ney – was dangerously unbalanced ever since a traumatic experience in Russia. The ground was muddy, and he wasn’t used to Wellington’s methods. What I think, though, is that Napoleon was just not his old self. He was older, tired, suffering from ailments, and losing sleep. He was human, not a god of war or a demon. And age was catching up with him.
Wellington, though, was at the height of his ability. As Napoleon’s army attacked, there were many moments where the French almost broke through the British line, but wherever there was danger there was also Wellington. He rode the line with serene calm as the bullets and cannonballs danced past, raising his bicorner hat in acknowledgment. Every British soldier’s account of Waterloo marked the moment that Wellington came by to offer some words of recognition, a cheer, or a promise.
Napoleon’s infantry attack got caught up in the major manor houses of Hougoumont and La-Haye-Sainte, complexes of stone buildings situated midway between the French and British lines. As Napoleon’s artillery bellowed at the British – who avoided most major damage, concealed behind the slope – the French infantry assaulted Hougoumont, which was held by some British Guards, German “jager” troops and Dutch light infantry. The battle seesawed back and forth all day, with the French piling in more and more men to take the manor. This distracted much of the French attention away from the main British force.
Nevertheless, the French infantry fell on Wellington’s army with a furious crash, and the Allies were hard-pressed to hold them back. The Dutch militia fought hard but were soon overwhelmed, and quickly backed up by a brigade of Scots, including the 1st Foot (Royal Scots) and 42nd Foot (Black Watch). Thomas Picton, a famously severe British general, had arrived so quickly from England that he hadn’t had time to pick up his uniform from the tailor. Leading his Scots into battle, he was shot and killed as the French drove in the British line, forcing the Black Watch back. At 3pm, then, the French were on the verge of winning the Battle of Waterloo.
At this critical juncture, Wellington ordered his cavalry to attack and throw back the French infantry. The Scots Greys and Household Cavalry charged recklessly, throwing back the French foot. The British cavalry commander, the Earl of Uxbridge, had his leg blown off by a cannonball, but still made his way back to Wellington to report, and the result is one of my favorite ever historical quotes:
Uxbridge, calmly: “By God, sir, I have lost my leg.”
Wellington, also calmly: “By God, sir, so you have.”
Then it was the turn of the French cavalry to attack. Ney, reckless and unbalanced, sent the French horsemen in with no artillery or infantry support. The British regiments formed into square and blasted the French cuirassiers apart with disciplined volleys of musket fire. Wellington moved from square to square, and whenever the French withdrew rode among his troops to cheers. They were holding – but for how long? Nevertheless, the French had badly shaken Wellington’s army and were pressing their attack again.
Napoleon had learned of the approach of the Prussians by midday. With their arrival, he knew he could only win the battle if he beat Wellington quickly; otherwise, he would have to retreat, and the battle was over. He continued to bludgeon his British foe with everything he had, and though Wellington buckled, troops retreated, and large numbers of men fell, Napoleon could not break Wellington’s grip on the ridge – and the Prussians were closing in.
Wellington knew he was almost beaten. “Night or the Prussians must come,” he said over and over – praying that one of those could save him. Napoleon gambled everything, then, on the last assault of his Imperial Guard: the cream of the crop, his personal unit, his best troops. The Guard assaulted the British line at 7:30pm, as night approached: Napoleon’s last hope to win the battle. As the Guard approached the ridge through smoke and fading light, 1500 men of the British Grenadier Guards suddenly rose from the grass and fired a volley – and the Imperial Guard ran.
That was it. When other French units saw the Guard retreating, they retreated too, and soon the whole army was fleeing. Napoleon knew his time as ruler of France died in that moment, too, and rode south just ahead of the Prussians and British – on to Paris, then to exile once again and death on a barren South Atlantic island. Wellington waved his hat, yelled “The whole line shall advance!” and led his battered but victorious army on the pursuit. And that was Waterloo.
But what was Waterloo, and why is it so well-remembered compared to every other battle of the time? It wasn’t the most important battle. If anything, either Austerlitz or Leipzig was the most important fight of the Napoleonic Wars – Austerlitz because it shattered the old Europe, and Leipzig because it represented Napoleon’s true defeat. The fact is that even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, there were multiple Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies on their way from the east that would have ended his reign regardless. It wasn’t Napoleon’s greatest battle, or even Wellington’s. It didn’t change anything that wasn’t probably going to happen anyway. So – why Waterloo?
Well…what language are you reading this in? Every country emphasized their own contribution to the defeat of Napoleon over others. German-language accounts of Napoleon’s reign fixate on 1813. Russians focus on Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 – ever heard of “1812 Overture,” or “War and Peace?” It only makes sense that the British would focus on Waterloo. British propaganda didn’t just focus on it, though…it turned it into a symbol of British courage and superiority, of the stiff upper lip, of the ultimate triumph of English arms. The British beat the dead horse of Waterloo in poetry, paintings, literature and song for a century, somehow always forgetting that about half of Wellington’s troops were Dutch and German.
The other reason is that people are obsessed with the endings of things. Look at our society: we dream of disaster, fantasize about apocalypse, wonder when X will end or America will perish or society will fall apart. The idea of endings, of hubris come to catastrophe, of a great man fallen low were common themes of obsession in the immediate post-Waterloo period – a trend we call Romanticism. Napoleon, the ultimate real-life Romantic hero, met a Romantic end in the ultimate downfall and decline that followed his early success. Napoleon the genius, the great man, the hero, undone by his own flaws and his weaknesses. Not just the end of Napoleon, either: the end of the Revolution, the end of France's golden age, the end of a dream of glory that had followed Napoleon since his earliest days. It was, to France, the end of an era.
It makes a great story – and that’s why the French are in love with Waterloo almost as much as the British. Even Victor Hugo, that great Republican and anti-monarchist, couldn’t stop himself from writing a long description of Waterloo in “Les Miserables” (which has NOTHING to do with Napoleon). It became a French myth as much as a British one; it became a symbol of the noble and glorious defeat, like Appomattox for the South or Thermopylae for the Greeks. For men who dreamed of French glory, there was always “what if…” From the way the French talk about Waterloo, you’d think they won it.
And in myth and memory…they kind of did.