The Waterloo Campaign was Napoleon's last big gamble. His daring escape from exile in Elba was accomplished on 26 February 1815. On 1 March, Napoleon landed in France. Several days later, the 5th Line Regiment which was sent to capture him, defected to his side en masse with shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!". By 20 March, Napoleon was back in Paris.
The pressing task facing Napoleon was the raising of an army. The entire Bourbon army of 200,000 men came over to him. Another 50,000 retired veterans were recalled to the colours. The "class of 1815" was hurriedly called up. By this means, Napoleon was able to raise an army of 300,000 men within a month. But many of these men were poorly equipped and under-trained. Even the Imperial Guard - some regiments poorly equipped and attired - was only a shadow of its former self.
But time to equip and train was a luxury Napoleon could not afford. Already, the forces of the Alliance were closing in on France from all sides. Napoleon's only hope - to defeat the Allies piecemeal - before they could concentrate their forces. The first stroke of his master plan - the defeat of the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian forces in Belgium.
The Anglo-Dutch army was concentrated around Brussels, while the Prussian army was concentrated around Liege. Napoleon's plan was to march his Armee du Nord between these 2 armies, prevent them from concentrating against him, and thereby defeat them in detail.
The Battle of Ligny and Quartre Bras
"If you fight here, you will be damnably mauled."
The Duke of Wellington to Marshal Bluecher before the Battle of Ligny.
Marshal Ney was instructed to take the crossroads at Quartre Bras on 15 June. The crossroads were of strategic importance to the French as it would have anchored their internal lines of communication. On 15 June, the crossroads were weakly held by a brigade of Dutch-Belgian infantry. But Ney was not the commander he used to be. When his probing force was repulsed, Ney stopped his attack. Napoleon stressed to Ney the importance of taking the crossroads and urged him to continue his attack. Ney's orders were now to take the crossroads and swing in on the right and fall on the Prussian left flank at Ligny. Ney continued his attack on Quartre Bras on 16 June, but did so cautiously - enabling the British to reinforce the position.
In the meantime, Napoleon concentrated his forces for an attack on the Prussians at Ligny. The Prussians were forming up on exposed positions. The French opened their attack with a hail of cannon fire. The Prussians, exposed to the cannon fire, sufferred heavy casualties without being able to fight back. Napoleon next attacked the Prussians on the left and in the centre. The Prussians began to give way. But Ney - who was supposed to fall on the Prussian right flank and thereby complete the Prussian defeat - was himself fully occupied at Quartre Bras. Because of this, the Prussian defeat at Ligny was incomplete. The Prussians were able to reform and conduct an orderly retreat towards Wavre - pursued halfheartedly by Grouchy.
By evening of 16 June, the British still held Quartre Bras. But as the Prussians were falling back towards Wavre, Wellington felt that he had no choice but to fall back as well - towards Waterloo.
The Battle of Waterloo
"A near run thing." - The Duke of Wellington
Link to Map
The battle of Waterloo began at 11.35am on 18 June 1815 with the French artillery opening fire on Hougoumont. This was followed by an assault by 4 regiments of French infantry. Hougoumont - on the extreme right of the Allied line - was garrisoned by the light companies of the Scots and Coldstream Guards. Fighting around Hougoumont was fierce and the British held.
The French assault on Hougoumont was a feint. Napoleon hoped that Wellington would weaken his centre thinking that the main French effort would come in on that flank. The main assault would then come in directly on the weakened centre - splitting the Allied army in two. Wellington did not fall for this trick. Nevertheless, the next French assault came in on the Allied centre.
A massive bombardment fell on the Allied centre. But the bombardment had little effect on the Allied troops - who were mostly formed up on the reverse slope. General D'Erlon next led 4 infantry divisions against the Allied centre. Bylandt's Dutch brigade - exposed to the earlier bombardment, and now faced with an assault by 4 divisions of French infantry - understandably fled to the rear. To their credit, they rallied behind the British line. Fresh British troops rose from behind the ridge to engage the French. During the fighting, General Sir Thomas Picton - one of Wellington's best - was killed by a musket ball to the head. Uxbridge then unleashed 2 brigades of heavy cavalry on the French - the Household brigade and the Union brigade. This charge confirmed once more the devastating effect heavy cavalry could have on infantry. D'Erlon's Corps was routed.
Ney, in temporary command of the battle, decided that the cavalry would have to break the Allied line. He ordered an unsupported charge of the entire French cavalry. Faced with this mass of horsemen, the British infantry formed square. The French, which were unable to break through the British squares, rode round and round the squares - all the time taking casualties from British musket fire. The French cavalry were finally driven off by British light cavalry.
By 4pm, the Prussians were only 2 miles from the French right flank. Napoleon sent 4 regiments of the Young Guard to hold the Prussians at Placenoit. The Prussians were held at Placenoit for the time being - but the Prussian 1st Corps under General Zieten managed to link up with the Allied left flank. Grouchy had failed in his task of keeping the Prussians away from Waterloo.
Napoleon had only one chance - he had to break the Allied line before more Prussians arrived on the field.
Ney was instructed to take La Haye Sainte in the Allied centre - which had held out against numerous assaults by the remnants of D'Erlon's corps. Faced with fresh troops and a determined assault, La Haye Sainte finally fell. But Ney's victory was not followed up by an immediate assault on the Allied centre. Instead, the French assault came in one hour later on the Allied right-centre. This was Napoleon's last gamble - he committed his final reserve - his beloved Imperial Guard.
The Imperial Guard is attacked all along the route of its advance - by the Brunswick brigade, 2 British artillery batteries, 1 Belgian brigade, 1 battery of horse artillery and 4 battalions of British infantry - but the "invincibles" still keep coming, As the Imperial Guard approaches the crest of the ridge, 2 battalions of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards rise from the reverse slope and fire 3 volleys into their packed ranks. At the same time, the British 52nd Light Infantry pours enfilade fire into the Imperial Guard. This is too much even for the Imperial Guard. They hesitate and attempt to deploy into line, but are immediately charged by the Foot Guards and forced to retreat. In recognition of this action, the 1st Foot Guards are later awarded the title "Grenadier".
"La Garde recule!"The French watch in horror as the unthinkable happens. The Imperial Guard never retreats! It is an omen - the end of an era. French morale collapses, and the army retreats in disorder. What is left of the Imperial Guard fights heroically to cover the French retreat.
On 22 June 1815, Napoleon abdicates. After 20 years of continuous warfare, the Napoleonic Wars come to an end.
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