The Battle of Waterloo: Napoleon's last stand

A "wounded eagle" -  French Imperial eagle
carried into battle and pierced by enemy fire

June 18 is the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, an epic encounter that put an end once and for all to Napoleon’s dream of conquering Europe. 

The Emperor had made a glorious comeback to power a hundred days earlier, after escaping from exile on the island of Elba, just off the western coast of Italy. 

Napoleon seemed unstoppable as he made his way in triumph across Europe. It took the combined and well-coordinated military forces of Great Britain and its allies, along with the Prussians, to halt the Emperor's progress.

Napoleon's army and his plans for the future of Europe were crushed at Waterloo, a village just south of Brussels. 

On that summer day over 200 years ago, the peaceful Belgium countryside was engulfed by the sights and sounds of a deadly battle: the thunder of drumbeats and hoofbeats; frantic shouts; booming guns; the thick, pervasive smog of musket and artillery fire; and the smell of death. 

Engaged in fierce fighting against Napoleon’s Armée du Nord was a multi-national army of British, Dutch and German troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington

Joining Wellington was the Prussian army led by Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. This wasn't the 72-year-old von Blücher's first encounter with Napoleon; five years earlier he'd defeated the French general at the Battle of Leipzig. 

One of Wellington's men wresting an Imperial eagle 
standard away from a French soldier during the battle.
For such a short conflict Waterloo was extremely bloody, with approximately 50,000 casualties combined on both sides and thousands more wounded, captured or missing. And that carnage doesn’t account for the hordes of dead horses strewn over the battlefield, a gruesome contribution to the hellish scene.

Even worse, because of inadequate medical resources many of the wounded lingered on the open field for days, with no doctors to treat their injuries and prevent unnecessary and excruciating deaths.

So what did the battle achieve? Here are few reasons why the Battle of Waterloo merits attention:  

  • First and foremost, Waterloo firmly squashed Napoleon's hopes of ever dominating Europe. Following his defeat, he was forced into exile once again, this time on the distant South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died. If Napoleon had won the battle the map of Europe would have been redrawn and the course of history changed. The Battle of Waterloo also marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which spanned more than 15 years and caused the deaths of an estimated 3-6 million soldiers and civilians. 
  • The aftermath of Waterloo ushered in a period of relatively long-lasting peace with no further armed conflict between the major powers in Europe for almost 40 years, until the Crimean War of the mid-1850s. The British army didn’t fight again on Western European soil for almost a hundred years, up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
  • A smaller but enduring effect of the battle was the introduction of the word “Waterloo” into the English vernacular, as in the expression “meeting my Waterloo” or facing an ultimate defeat, just as Napoleon did that day.

To better understand what transpired on June 18, 1815, here’s an animated look at the battle, which explains in just over 12 minutes how Napoleon was outflanked and outwitted by Wellington and von Blücher.

Equally compelling are the photographs of French veterans 40 years after Waterloo, posing in their uniformsSeeing these faces makes the battle real, lifting it out of the dusty pages of history and breathing life into what was one of the most significant conflicts in European history.




Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

2 comments:

  1. Maureen, this was interesting because I am reading the Poldark books. Right now they are at the point where Napolean is in France again, making his way toward Paris!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Poldark! I can't wait to get to the book you're reading. Thanks for your comment.

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