Under Napoleon, France had lost whole armies, first in Egypt, then in the expedition under General Leclerc against the Negro revolt in the island of Haiti in the Caribbean. She lost more than one army trying to subjugate the proud Spaniards. The half a million strong Grand Armee the military wonder of the early nineteenth century , three hundred thousand of which were Frenchmen, was completely annihilated in Russia in In Napoleon, nothing daunted, scraped the manpower barrel of France, raised new armies and against any and all military logic while the four-year war against the aroused people of the Iberian peninsula was draining the life-blood of the country away invaded Germany, trying to keep Europe subjugated.
In a series of battles he lost another big army, so that during he did not have enough troops to ward off the invading allies. Came his resignation and confinement with all honours to the adjacent little island of Elba.
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By that time not a family in France was without one or two victims of his insatiable ambitions for conquest and glory. The French mothers were referring to him as "the monster" and as the ogre that was devouring their offspring with his incessant campaigns. It was the wanton sacrifice of the young French manhood by Napoleon that brought France, the most prosperous and most populous country of Europe, to the status of a second-rate power during , and when she was forced to fight for her very existence.
Phase 1: Dispositions, Cannonade, Hougoumont. Once Wellington decided to accept battle he deployed his heterogeneous army on the softly rising plateau of Mont St. Jean and projected a few battalions on his advanced right to defend Hougoumont Castle, farm buildings, woods and other features.
It was behind Hougoumont that the imaginary precipice and the imaginary hollow road that destroyed Ney's cavalry, were supposedly located, all widely and universally believed myths emanating from the pen of Victor Hugo and other writers. Myths and legends that have no basis on topography nor on military facts. Since the most obstinate part of the battle and most of its casualties took place on that plateau of Mont St.
Jean, the battle itself should have been called the Battle of Mont St. Wellington, however, called it the Battle of Waterloo, from a little village in the rear of his deployment, which one of his staff officers could not even find on any map! The British Army did not construct breastworks. The reason for that is unknown, therefore we leave it at that. Napoleon's army was made up of veterans mostly from the remnants of his destroyed armies, from released prisoners of war and especially from repatriated garrisons of fortresses that were abandoned. Those veterans were devoted to Napoleon and were brave warriors.
In fact they were the best soldiers in Europe, but they were not many and on that day they did not have the best leadership. Napoleon's cavalry of 15, was particularly strong and well mounted, but had no real leader, for Murat was refused employment. He was also very strong in artillery and he was the undisputed master of that arm.
On the other hand Wellington had an heterogeneous Allied Army and fewer guns. But he was a master of the defensive battle, even though Napoleon did not agree with that assessment. General Reille, who knew Wellington, his tactics and his infantry well from the disastrous campaigns in Spain, told Napoleon: "The British Army in a defensive position is impregnable.
Before crossing bayonets with them half the assailants will be shot down. But the ground was soft and slippery on account of the night's heavy downpour. Another reason for the delay was that the French army was dispersed from the previous battles and pursuits against Wellington at Quatre Bras and Blucher at Ligny.
But the most important reason for the dispersal of the French army was the total absence of any commissariat. Napoleon waged all his campaigns on the principle that each of his divisions would fan out, to plunder and live on the countryside, without any other expense, bother or cumbersome commissariat organization. For the above reasons, instead of beginning early in the morning, he opened the attack at noon. The battle itself was simple and easy to describe.
No complicated movements, no brilliant conceptions, especially from the defeated side. Napoleon's tactics were the same as in many previous glorious victories. Heavy, continuous and well-directed bombardment by his guns. After the hoped for decimation and demoralization of the enemy, frontal assault by the bayonet and finally pursuit and annihilation.
His artillery concentration against the plateau that Sunday at noon was terrifying. As a matter of fact thousands of Wellington's raw Allies withdrew from their positions and simply took cover behind the battle line among the woods to the east of the unknown insignificant little village of Waterloo. A staff officer described the troops who found refuge in those woods as a Sunday picnic crowd out of harms way.
Why was Napoleon defeated at Waterloo?
But that withdrawal was a blessing in disguise for Wellington, for he was left with a smaller army composed of well-disciplined and battleworthy troops, over a small compact area, and over whom he exercised perfect control throughout the crisis. Napoleon's heavy guns with a range of over 2, yards were particularly effective, but Wellington changed the positions of some of his veterans on the plateau and in that way prevented very heavy casualties. That and the heavy ground prevented the cannonade from being decisive.
The way in which Wellington managed the politics brings to mind his tendency to claim credit and downplay the contribution of others. Beyond the personal, casting Waterloo as a British rather than Anglo-Dutch or allied victory with Prussian aid, bolstered British diplomatic prestige. Until then, the other powers had carried the main weight of the war with Napoleon in central Europe, with the British fighting at sea and in the Iberian peninsula. JB: It was a major battle and a great achievement, but a battle that I believe was most important in its consequences.
AF : It was the battle that ended a generation of European and global warfare. For that reason alone it has a rare significance. It was also a very savage and fierce conflict, with casualties high on both sides around 24, killed and wounded on the allied side, over 30, on the French. And it was all concentrated into a short time and a limited physical space. All this contributed to its iconic status, at least in Britain.
Waterloo: the historians’ verdict
AL: The last battle of a year cycle of conflict was always going to be memorable, even if it had been a damp squib, but Waterloo had everything — a major engagement between experienced commanders that ended with a complete victory. However, eventually the Austrians and Russians would have finished off Napoleon even if he had won at the battle of Waterloo. AL: No, the worst defeat would be at the battle of Leipzig [a decisive allied victory in Saxony in October ], which was far more significant.
The battle of Waterloo ended a brief resurgence, but the battle of Leipzig ended his empire.
An old soldier sees through the smoke of Waterloo | The Spectator
Leipzig was a pivotal earlier defeat, but Napoleon managed to recover slightly when the allies reached France and fought impressive defensive actions on his own soil. Napoleon never managed that after Waterloo. Waterloo compelled Napoleon to abandon his hopes and rendered his position untenable.
AF: To the extent that it finally ended his imperial dreams, I suppose it can. But Napoleon did not fight the battle badly. His tactics were logical and his troops conducted themselves well.
Waterloo would be remembered in France without shame, as an honourable defeat. This left a power balance in Europe that greatly benefited Britain, making her the leading industrial and imperial power of the Victorian era.
The battle of Waterloo also gave the British Army and its regiments a new confidence and pride: Britain was accustomed to command the seas, but had seldom enjoyed dominance in land battles. Wellington won Europe that period of time. AL : The focus on tactics has faded, but the meaning of the event has become more significant. AF: In the immediate aftermath of the battle the British government claimed it as a specifically British victory; there were public celebrations and memorials to Wellington and the battle.
The Waterloo Medal was issued to all the soldiers who had taken part. Wellington clearly manipulated public opinion on this issue, but with time it has been appreciated that the battle was a truly joint effort, as much a Prussian victory as a British one. AF: The details of tactics and strategy have been dissected thoroughly over the years, but historians are now asking different questions about war and the battles that are its most dramatic moments.
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It is hard to overestimate the dismay and fear provoked by this news. His escape, many feared, would restart French imperial expansion, and once more plunge Europe into war. See also: How the Battle of Waterloo changed the world.