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The Battle of Waterloo

After Elba

On the 1st March 1815, after only eleven months of exile, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped his captors on the island of Elba, and landed in the south of France. He returned to Paris to overthrow King Louis XVIII and resume his position as Emperor of France, thus re-igniting a war that had raged across Europe since 1803.

Hearing of his escape, the central powers in Europe formed the Seventh Coalition and again declared war on France. Napoleon moved quickly and got the upper hand by marching north into Belgium to confront the only two coalition armies that had time to assemble: those commanded by the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Blücher.

Divide and Conquer

Napoleon's plan was to divide the Allies; first by advancing and defeating Blücher and the Prussians, and then turning his attention to Wellington's Anglo-Allied army.

On Friday 16th June, Napoleon's forces met the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny, and after heavy fighting the Prussian army was forced to retreat towards Wavre. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Dutch army met the French, commanded by Marshal Ney, at the Battle of Quatre Bras. After a fiercely contested battle at Quatre Bras, neither side was forced from the field. Wellington gained a tactical victory, whilst Napoleon gained a strategic one, having prevented the Allies from coming to Blücher's aid.

Napoleon's great mistake was assuming that he had effectively wiped out the Prussian army, thus allowing Wellington's army to retreat to a prepared battleground outside Waterloo.

Day of the Battle

After a night of intense rain, Napoleon advanced on Sunday 18th June, delaying his onslaught until midday to allow the ground to dry out. The fighting was fierce and lasted into the late evening. The French Emperor came close to defeating Wellington's army at several points in the ensuing battle, but upon the arrival of Blücher and the Prussian army the battle was swung in the Coalition's favour.

The Battle of Waterloo was the last great set-piece European battle that deployed infantry armed with flintlock muskets and rifles; cavalry armed with swords, pistols and lances; and artillery armed with muzzle-loading cannon.