The battle that brought the Napoleonic Wars to a much awaited end took place around 18 June, 1815. Those involved in the bloody conflict were French, Prussian, Belgian, Dutch and British. The battle takes its name from a small Belgian village that stands nearby.
Napoleon Bonaparte had first been sent to the island of Elba to cool his heels after involving at least a million dead, wounded and homeless as a result of his insatiable ambition for himself and France. Actually he was Corsican, which indicates more Italian blood than French. He managed to leave Elba, and returned to start the Hundred Days War, encouraged by Hussars and soldiers rushing back to his standard. The Allies lined against him decided that if he were now, at last, to be beaten, they would put him somewhere rather less easy from which to escape. But first they had to beat him in battle, and the war of a Hundred Days started well for him.
Bonaparte had, incredibly, gathered over 72,000 men to his bosom in this second and last attempt to dominate the whole of Europe. He had been beaten at sea in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He had been driven out of French-occupied Spain by Spanish irregulars aided by the forces of the Duke of Wellington. His brother Joseph (known rather cruelly as Pepe Botella by the Spanish) had been thrown off the Spanish throne on which he had been optimistically placed by the Corsican.
Wellington was in Belgium with 68,000 men from the nations previously listed, except Prussia, whose army of about 45,000 men had not yet arrived, having been held up in another battle. The Prussians were led by a doughty old soldier called Blücher, a man still to be reckoned with, a fact that Napoleon did not fully appreciate. It was Blücher at the Battle of Leipzig (1813) whose victory led to Napoleon’s first downfall.
On the night of 17 June there was a sudden, violent storm, lightning illuminating tomorrow’s killing ground with fearsome effect. Bonaparte postponed his main assault until midday, to allow the ground to dry, but this wise move had a calamitous result, in that the delay gave more time for the Prussians to catch up with the main force of the Allies.
At two o’clock in the afternoon the Prussians arrived, tired but not spent, and Blücher immediately ordered an attack on the Corsican’s right flank. The battle was joined, the P^russians momentarily repulsed. Wellington’s accurate bombardment with large cannon wreaked havoc among the French infantry, but the peerless cavalry was kept fresh. On the subject of cavalry it is worth noting that Bonaparte’s ever-agile mind had suggested to him the notion of using the largest horses and the tallest riders in his terrible ranks of Hussars. Added to this was the enormous spiked helmet worn by the riders, which made the French cavalry seem physically bigger than it was, but it was still a truly frightening sight to defenders on their feet.
At late tea-time French Marshall Ney (the first to return to his Chief) successfully laid siege and took the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, strategically placed in the middle of the Allied front line. But the farm was not taken without huge losses on both sides. Now the French artillery began a murderous bombardment, aimed from the centre. At 7 pm Bonaparte ordered his rightly-famed Garde Impériale to attack the weakening British infantry, involving several of Britain’s most famous fighting regiments set firmly in their squares. Time and again the cavalry attacked and withdrew, but the squares stood up to them – something of a miracle. The Iron Duke was everywhere, riding his famous horse. The officer riding with him suddenly announced, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg!” ‘Nosey’ Wellington looked at his companion and shouted, “By Gad sir, you’re right!”
And then, when even Wellington was beginning to think he might lose, Blúcher rallied! His forces assaulted the French flank and they, surprised because they never imagined the old soldier recover, began to fail in their endeavour. The Duke instantly ordered a general advance with the cannons roaring, and the guardsmen with fixed bayonets, never a pleasant sight. All the French were routed and ran, except the Garde, who resisted and fought tooth and nail to the end. Most died where they stood. Victory was soon declared, but the Iron Duke’s comment was . . . “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life!”
Napoleon Bonaparte lost the greater part of his entire army, and escaped the battlefield in his carriage, though he soon had to abandon it and continue on horseback, which must have been agony because he was suffering badly from piles. On 22 June, he signed his second (and last) abdication as Emperor of the French. The Allies sent him off to die on the island of St. Helena.
Casualties on both sides were appalling. France had to wait one hundred and thirty years for another Frenchman to allow his seething ambition to cloud an agile and brilliant mind – General de Gaulle. Some modern commentators insist on comparing Bonaparte with Sarkozy. They are right in one sense – both men being dwarfish.