The Battle of Waterloo, which took place in Belgium on June 18, 1815, marked the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, who conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French army during the French Revolution, seized control of the French government in 1799 and became emperor in 1804. Through the Napoleonic Wars, he expanded his empire across western and central Europe. The Battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon’s forces were defeated by the Prussians and the British (led by the Duke of Wellington), marked the end of his reign and of France’s domination in Europe.
Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Napoleon Bonaparte, born in 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, rose rapidly through the ranks of France’s military and proved himself a talented and daring leader.
After seizing political power in France in a 1799 coup d’état, he was given the title of first consul and became France’s leading political figure.
In 1804, he crowned himself the emperor of France in a lavish ceremony. Under Napoleon, France engaged in a successful series of battles against various coalitions of European nations, and the French empire expanded across much of western and central Europe.
Battle of Leipzig
In 1812, Napoleon led a disastrous invasion of Russia in which his army was forced to retreat and suffered massive casualties. At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese, with assistance from the British, drove Napoleon’s forces from the Iberian Peninsula in the Peninsular War (1808-1814).
In the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of Nations, Napoleon’s army was defeated by a coalition that included Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops. Afterward, Napoleon retreated to France, where in March 1814 coalition forces captured Paris.
Napoleon’s Abdication and Return
On April 6, 1814, Napoleon, then in his mid-40s, was forced to abdicate the throne, ending some 25 years of warfare. With the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy.
Less than a year later, on February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba and sailed to the French mainland with a group of more than 1,000 supporters. On March 20, he returned to Paris, where he was welcomed by cheering crowds.
The new king, Louis XVIII, fled, and Napoleon embarked on what came to be known as his Hundred Days campaign.
Napoleon Marches on Belgium
Upon Napoleon’s return to France, a coalition of allies—the Austrians, British, Prussians and Russians—who considered the French emperor an enemy began to prepare for war. Napoleon raised a new army and planned to strike preemptively, defeating the allied forces one by one before they could launch a united attack against him.
In June 1815, Napoleon’s forces marched into Belgium, where separate armies of British and Prussian troops were camped. Napoleon rallied his troops by declaring “For all Frenchmen who have the courage, the moment has come to conquer or perish!”
At the Battle of Ligny, on June 16, Napoleon used his superior artillery to defeat the Prussians under the command of Gebhard von Blucher. However, the French were unable to totally destroy the Prussian army, which quickly regrouped and retreated to a position not far from the village of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium.
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Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
Two days later, on June 18, 1815, Napoleon led his army of some 72,000 troops against the 68,000-man British army, which had also taken up a position near Waterloo, where they were able to communicate with their Prussian allies.
The British army, which included Belgian, Dutch and German troops, was commanded by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who had gained prominence fighting against the French during the Peninsular War. Wellington, a known expert at defensive combat, directed his troops to take an advantageous position along a ridge.
Battle of Waterloo Begins
In a critical blunder, Napoleon waited until midday to give the command to attack in order to let the waterlogged ground dry after the previous night’s rainstorm. The delay gave Blucher’s remaining Prussian troops, who, by some accounts, numbered more than 30,000, time to march to Waterloo and join the battle against the French later that day.
Although Napoleon’s troops mounted a vigorous attack against the British, Wellington’s position along and behind a ridge top — which had negated an early offensive bombardment by Napoleon — and the afternoon arrival of Blucher’s Prussian army turned the tide against the French.
By evening, all sides in the bloody battle had sustained heavy losses. Napoleon made one final push toward Wellington’s ridgeline position with his finest troops, the French Imperial Guard. But British guardsmen and light infantry were able to repel the French Imperial Guard advance, and Napoleon’s now-outnumbered army soon retreated in chaos.
The Prussian cavalry attacked and harried the retreating French troops long into the night. By some estimates, the French suffered almost 40,000 casualties (including dead, wounded or taken prisoner), while British and Prussian casualties numbered some 22,000. An estimated 10,800 men — most of them French soldiers — died in the Battle of Waterloo.
Reportedly fatigued and in poor health during the Belgian campaign, Napoleon committed tactical errors and acted indecisively. He also was blamed for appointing inadequate commanders who failed to communicate adequately and coordinate their strategy.
Ultimately, the Battle of Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon’s storied military career. He reportedly rode away from the battle in tears.
Though he emerged victorious, the Duke of Wellington later reflected on the the horrific costs of that victory: “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”
Wellington went on to serve as British prime minister, while Blucher, in his 70s at the time of the Waterloo battle, died a few years later.
Napoleon’s Final Years
After their crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the French dream of dominating Europe was over, as was Napoleon’s leadership. A few days after his humiliating rout at Waterloo, on June 22, 1815, Napoleon once again abdicated the throne of France.
That October, he was exiled to the remote, British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean. He died there on May 5, 1821, at age 51, most likely from stomach cancer.
Napoleon was buried on the island. However, in 1840, his remains were returned to France and entombed in a crypt at the Les Invalides military complex in Paris, where other French military leaders are interred.