Waterloo- The Unthinkable Happens- The Defeat of Napoleon

Napoleon the Emperor

Napoleon has been called a giant for the ages. His influence resonates to this day not only because of his military genius, but in law and governance.

Born on the island of Corsica in 1769 to a family of minor nobility, he would be Emperor of France in 1804. He first commanded men in battle when he was 24 years old. His greatest victory was at Austerlitz, where he defeated the combined forces of Russia and Austria in 1805.

Napoleon as Emperor

Napoleon as Emperor

He was unstoppable. Whole careers in the Prussian, Russian, and British Armies and Navies were spent fighting Napoleon for almost 23 years. By the time the battle of Waterloo in 1815 he was seen by many European countries as the embodiment of the Anti-Christ.

Waterloo was one of the most decisive military encounters in history.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington

At the battle two of the greatest commanders of the age met on the battlefield. Both men are 42 years old. Both men have been campaigning for a long time. Wellesley spent the last decade fighting in India and Spain against Napoleon.

Wellesley is a native of Ireland. As a colonel in1796, he saw action in the Netherlands and in India. He fought in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War at the Battle of Seringapatam. As a major-general, he won a decisive victory over the Maratha Confederacy at the Battle of Assaye in 1803.

Arthur Wellelsey

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington

He rose to prominence as a general during the Peninsular campaign (Spain and Portugal) of the Napoleonic Wars. He was promoted to the rank of field marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. When the Battle of Waterloo he commands an allied army, together with a Prussian army under General Blücher.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt

Blücher is the commander of the Prussian army. He was 72 at the time of Waterloo and the only man to have beaten Napoleon more than once.

His self-confidence and career record had a positive effect on his army. He helps to keep morale amongst the Prussians high with his tough attitude.


Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

The Allied Army and the Napoleonic Wars

The Allied army under Wellesley was a coalition of British, Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers. Napoleon described Britain as ‘the most powerful and most constant… of my enemies,’ (Cummins, 2009).

Both sides have fought for 23 years. They begin with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803. Both sides are full of veterans who have several tours. All the generals, both Allied and French, fought each other before. Many of them have made fortunes and reputations fighting these wars.

Napoleon had built up his army from a few veterans. They are mostly disenchanted peasants and conscripts. All are hastily trained having been assembled at short notice.

His strength lay in his veteran artillery and cavalry, which were greater than Wellington’s. He relied on surprise and aggression rather than firepower, his priority was to break the enemy’s frontline.

Wellesley’s army is not large enough, but is skilled. The British and allies have 70,000 men, the Prussians have 70,000. The French have 72,000 men.


Wellesley understood military matters. He had never been beaten by the French and had a reputation as a talented coalition general.

His experience in India and the Peninsular Campaign of 1811 when the British went to support Portugal and Spain against Napoleon helps. He is a meticulous planner and prepares for the battle in great detail.

Lay of the Land

He uses hand drawn maps that shows where his troops would go. This helps him to get the lay of the land. Waterloo is on the main road to Brussels. Wellesley wants to use ridges on the battlefield. They give him protection, screen his movements without being flanked.

The enclosed country has deep ravines around the villages that will protect his right flank. This also makes it impossible for the enemy to turn into it.

Wellington decided that his best plan was to stand firm until the Prussians could come to his aid. He lined the majority of his troops up out of sight behind the ridge. He and garrisons his men some in front at the farms of Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte.

In the center of the right flank is a country house called Chateau de Goumont (usually called Hougoumont). The house was loop-holed for firing ports. This house would become the center of the battle.

Wellesley supervised the preparation of the battlefield. His strengths are his strong leadership and the overwhelming numbers of his allies the Prussians.

Waterloo Painting


British Weapons

The howitzer was a short barreled cannon. It had a steep angle of fire that allowed it to be fired over obstacles. It allowed the artillerymen to shoot at angles without seeing what they were shooting at.

The shells had a short fuse that exploded, called shrapnel. Small balls inside the cannon balls similar to shotgun shells that decimated French formations of infantry or cavalry. This was a major advantage of the Royal Artillery.

Some of the British Infantry had the Baker Rifle. It allowed for sniping at an extended range. The rifle was machined with a grooved barrel that allowed the bullet to stabilize in flight. Its range was 300 yards more than 4 times the range of the French musket.

This brings to mind the old military adage, “Where do you start to kill the enemy? Where does he begin to kill you?”

 Baker Rifle

The Baker Rifle

Wellesley’s Plan

Wellesley had the allies occupy strong points. This was designed to break the momentum of the French attacks. His army occupied a rising ground at the forest of Soigne.

Wellesley drew up most of his troops to the north of the Ohain road on the reverse slope and out of sight. This would protect his soldiers against the fire of the French artillery and allow for them to fire down on advancing French cavalry and infantry.

Wellington had massed the bulk of his army on his right flank and occupied the Chateau de Goumont (called Hougoumont).

His left flank lightly held. He expected Blücher to show up to reinforce the Allied left flank. Only one brigade was fully exposed as a diversion.

Napoleon’s Plan

Napoleon’s plan of attack was simple. He needed a fast, complete victory. He knew time was of the essence. He wanted to annihilate Wellington’s forces with straightforward frontal blows.

Napoleon aimed to create a diversion by attacking Hougoumont first. Artillery was the key. Following a heavy artillery bombardment to soften the defenses on the Allied center and left. He would mount a full attack on the ridge where the British were.

At 1300 he would give the overall command to his field commander Marshal Ney. His men would launch a diversionary attack on Goumont in order to attract some Allied reserves from the center.

A great battery of some 80 guns was formed for a heavy artillery bombardment on the Allied center and left. This was to soften the defenses.

The Battle

No artillery was brought forward during the assault of Hougoumont. The Prussians swept behind the French. Wellesley had over 140,000 men with the arrival of the Prussians. He outnumbered the French two-to-one

The French were locked in the center. The Prussians were on the right flank and the British were at Hougoumont.

Cavalry was known for its speed, mobility and shock value to create chaos. With no artillery support at the top of the hill the French cavalry attack was stopped by the greater range of the British weapons.

Waterloo is cavalry country. It has gentle, rolling hills, no great obstacles to allow a maximum number of half a ton of man and animal to attack on-line. Horses are a herd animal and this is what allows them to charge.

By now 23 years into the war the British have learned a few things. The British square formation was against the cavalry at it advanced. The British square simply moved around and through the horses.

By the time the French charge the landscape is littered with bodies and equipment. Conditions of the battlefield have changed. The soil becomes mud with high traffic.

It stops the full charge of the horses. Most horses will not ride over human beings. Napoleon’s beloved Calvary Marshal Ney makes 12 charges. He is stopped in the quagmire of litter on the battlefield.

French assault of the Hougoumont begins to fail after dark. It is hopeless. 5,000 Frenchmen died trying to take Hougoumont.

By the evening Wellesley knows he has defeated the French.

Waterloo Lay of Land

The Battle of Waterloo

Hougoumont was the key to Waterloo and it gave the edge to the Allied Army. 47,000 men died or were wounded on the single, bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars (Gabriel & Boose).

Lessons Learned

At Waterloo we have the defensive specialist in Wellesley facing off against the offensive genius in Napoleon. Wellesley was a dispassionate commander who never allowed his ego to interfere with common sense. He was steady and calm in the battle.

Napoleon was not in his top form that day. His army was full of poorly trained conscripts and he made a poor decision in his subordinate commanders. He was brilliant, passionate, but ultimately intemperate (Cummins, 2009).

He was already very sick by then and deterioration in his overall ability. He had become arrogant and overconfident in his own abilities. The Napoleon of before 1815 would not have lost this battle.

He underestimated his opponents and appointed second rate commanders. His greatest mistake was his lack of personal control over the battle.

Wellington described his victory as a ‘damned near-run thing’. The battle was closely fought and either side could have won. Mistakes in communication, leadership and judgment led, ultimately, to French defeat.


Cummins, J. (2009). History’s Greatest Wars. New York : Crestline Publishing .

Gabriel, R. A., & Boose, D. W. (n.d.). The Great Battles of Antiquity A Strategic and Tactical Guide to Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War . Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press .