Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

At Waterloo in Belgium, Napoleon Bonaparte suffers defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington, bringing an end to the Napoleonic era of European history.

The Corsica-born Napoleon, one of the greatest military strategists in history, rapidly rose in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army during the late 1790s. By 1799, France was at war with most of Europe, and Napoleon returned home from his Egyptian campaign to take over the reins of the French government and save his nation from collapse. After becoming first consul in February 1800, he reorganized his armies and defeated Austria. In 1802, he established the Napoleonic Code, a new system of French law, and in 1804 was crowned emperor of France in Notre Dame Cathedral. By 1807, Napoleon controlled an empire that stretched from the River Elbe in the north, down through Italy in the south, and from the Pyrenees to the Dalmatian coast.

READ MORE: Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Was the Beginning of the End

Beginning in 1812, Napoleon began to encounter the first significant defeats of his military career, suffering through a disastrous invasion of Russia, losing Spain to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War, and enduring total defeat against an allied force by 1814. Exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, he escaped to France in early 1815 and set up a new regime. As allied troops mustered on the French frontiers, he raised a new Grand Army and marched into Belgium. He intended to defeat the allied armies one by one before they could launch a united attack.

On June 16, 1815, he defeated the Prussians under Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher at Ligny, and sent 33,000 men, or about one-third of his total force, in pursuit of the retreating Prussians. On June 18, Napoleon led his remaining 72,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington’s 68,000-man allied army, which had taken up a strong position 12 miles south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo. In a fatal blunder, Napoleon waited until mid-day to give the command to attack in order to let the ground dry. The delay in fighting gave Blucher’s troops, who had eluded their pursuers, time to march to Waterloo and join the battle by the late afternoon.

In repeated attacks, Napoleon failed to break the center of the allied center. Meanwhile, the Prussians gradually arrived and put pressure on Napoleon’s eastern flank. At 6 p.m., the French under Marshal Michel Ney managed to capture a farmhouse in the allied center and began decimating Wellington’s troops with artillery. Napoleon, however, was preoccupied with the 30,000 Prussians attacking his flank and did not release troops to aid Ney’s attack until after 7 p.m. By that time, Wellington had reorganized his defenses, and the French attack was repulsed. Fifteen minutes later, the allied army launched a general advance, and the Prussians attacked in the east, throwing the French troops into panic and then a disorganized retreat. The Prussians pursued the remnants of the French army, and Napoleon left the field. French casualties in the Battle of Waterloo were 25,000 men killed and wounded and 9,000 captured, while the allies lost about 23,000.

Napoleon returned to Paris and on June 22 abdicated in favor of his son. He decided to leave France before counterrevolutionary forces could rally against him, and on July 15 he surrendered to British protection at the port of Rochefort. He hoped to travel to the United States, but the British instead sent him to Saint Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Napoleon protested but had no choice but to accept the exile. With a group of followers, he lived quietly on St. Helena for six years. In May 1821, he died, most likely of stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. In 1840, his body was returned to Paris, and a magnificent funeral was held. Napoleon’s body was conveyed through the Arc de Triomphe and entombed under the dome of the Invalides.

READ MORE: The Personality Traits that Led to Napoleon Bonaparte's Epic Downfall


Doomed At Waterloo: These Mistakes Caused Napoleon To Lose His Final Battle

The world of Napoleon, with its multiple great powers, shifting alliances, realpolitik, and need for battlefield skills more closely resembles the modern world than World War II or the Cold War.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The timing Napoleon chose for Waterloo is also thought to have been a major mistake. Instead of attacking British forces in the early morning, he waited several hours to commence the battle, reportedly breakfasting leisurely. He underestimated the skill of Wellington’s forces, despite knowing of their experience during the Peninsular War in Spain.

June 18 marks the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great defeat at Waterloo, the battle in today’s Belgium that ended his career. Waterloo has since become a byword for a final crushing defeat. Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars were an important watershed in history and there is renewed interest in this period today.

The world of Napoleon, with its multiple great powers, shifting alliances, realpolitik, and need for battlefield skills more closely resembles the modern world than World War II or the Cold War. Therefore, a study of Napoleon is very relevant for today’s policymakers.

Napoleon was one of history’s greatest tacticians, though his abilities as a grand strategist and statesman were perhaps more limited—or at least subordinate to his ambition, that double-edged sword that both spurs men toward glory but also snatches it away from them. For a few years, from around 1805 to 1812, he was the undisputed master of Europe, yet by 1815, he was exiled to an isolated British island in the South Atlantic, having narrowly escaped being shot by the Prussians.

What happened? How did this genius end up on the path to downfall?

Here are five mistakes that doomed Napoleon.

Napoleon insults Talleyrand

Although Napoleon understood diplomacy and statecraft, he was definitely more adept as a soldier and administrator. Napoleon faired well diplomatically during the early period of his rule, however, this was due mostly to the skills of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

Talleyrand was considered one of the most adept, skilled diplomats in European history—in 1815, he secured a peace for France that was extremely lenient considering the history of the previous two decades—but was also known for holding a grudge. Under his watch, and Napoleon’s military prowess, France was able to excel geopolitically because Talleyrand managed to prevent all of Europe’s powers from allying against France and got many countries to throw their lot in with Napoleon.

Napoleon, however, began to shut Talleyrand out of power because the latter was corrupt and grew rich through war related speculation (these charges were true). He also began to oppose Napoleon’s adventures in Spain and his harsh treatment of defeated Prussia and began “counseling” the Tsar and other foreign leaders. However, Talleyrand really turned against Napoleon sometime around 1808-1809 when Napoleon, suspecting him of treason, publically berated him, calling him a “shit in a silk stocking,” adding that he could “break him like a glass, but it's not worth the trouble.”

Surprisingly, Napoleon thought this was the end of the matter and continued seeking the services of Talleyrand, even restoring him to full power by 1813. During this time, Talleyrand passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others. Strangely enough, he was never caught and Napoleon seemed unaware of these activities, especially since Talleyrand had a personal reason to see Napoleon gone. Talleyrand continued to serve a number of French regimes and foreign powers for the rest of his life.

Napoleon embarks on the Peninsular War in Spain

Napoleon embarked on the Peninsular War in Spain—a long, unnecessary, guerilla struggle—that wore down his forces from 1808 to 1814. The Peninsular War marked the point where many of his enemies, both internally and externally, began to realize that Napoleon was overstretching and started working to bring him down. The Peninsular War led individuals such as Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Talleyrand, and the British general the Duke of Wellington to all realize that Napoleon did not know when to stop.

By 1807, France was at peace with all her neighbors minus the British, having defeated the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, coming to favorable terms with all of them. Napoleon was the master of Europe but he failed to convert this into a lasting peace.

The Peninsular War began initially because Napoleon wished to invade Portugal to prevent it from trading with Britain. As with the invasion of Russia, this was hardly necessary and cost far more than it was worth. In the process of invading Portugal, Napoleon also became involved in a succession issue between the Spanish king and his son and ended up placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne—an action that completely lacked foresight, failed to take the conditions and wishes of the Spanish into consideration, and smacked of nepotism from a man famed for promoting meritocracy.

Inexplicably, Napoleon would continue to promote and place members of his largely incompetent family on thrones throughout Europe, alienating many countries and bringing him little benefit. In Spain itself, French troops fought brutally against armed bands and civilian populations, leading to its estrangement from the population. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of French troops that could have been used elsewhere were bogged down in guerilla warfare against Spanish insurgents aided by British troops under Wellington for seven years.

Napoleon invades Russia

As is widely known today, invading Russia with a large army from the west is generally not a good idea. This was not as widely known in 1812, however, and having defeated the Russians in numerous pitched battles in Germany, Napoleon was confident of victory in Russia.

Napoleon’s first mistake was invading Russia at all: it was totally unnecessary. One of the primary reasons for the invasion was to enforce the Continental System, a blockade aimed at preventing the British from trading in any ports across the continent. Yet, the invasion of Russia strengthened the British position by providing it with an ally willing to openly trade with it. And the French goals were not nearly important enough to justify the invasion, which was overreach and hubris.

One he commenced his invasion of Russia with the 600,000-men strong Grande Armée, Napoleon failed to achieve the conditions required for a typical Napoleonic victory—utilizing his tactical genius to defeat his enemies in a pitched battle. Russian armies kept on retreating and refused to fight until the Battle of Borodino, near Moscow, which was indecisive.

Afterwards, Napoleon occupied Moscow but failed to take into account that the Russian way of waging war did not conform to his expectations. He thought that occupying Moscow would force the Russians to come to terms instead the Russians burnt down Moscow. Napoleon simply could not cope with the combination of logistical challenges and issues of scale on a territory geographically and culturally distinct from the conditions he had mastered.

As a result, the normally goal-oriented Napoleon could not achieve his aims and was instead forced to retreat from a ruined Moscow in winter. A combination of weather, disease, desertion, and attacks reduced his army to less than 80,000 troops by the time they left Russia. To summarize the totality of Napoleon’s mistakes during the Russian Campaign: he was unable to adapt his brilliant thinking beyond the localized context of the battlefield.

Napoleon leaves Elba

After his first defeat and abdication in 1814, Napoleon was offered fairly generous terms for one who had earned the enmity of the other great powers of Europe. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, off the coast of Italy, but he was confirmed as the sovereign of that island, and had contact with many of his friends, family, and supporters throughout Europe. This was a much better deal than execution or his eventual fate as a semi-prisoner on St. Helena in 1815.

However, his fate was sealed when he escaped from Elba and returned to France, ensuring that he would not get such a deal again, as other European powers decided that he was too close for comfort and stability.

Napoleon should have never left Elba the conditions for future victories were minimal, and he knew it. He took a big risk in returning to France, but he succeeded in regaining power there. However, even if he had won at Waterloo, it is doubtful he could have lasted in power for long because all the other powers of Europe were arrayed against him and had sworn to remain at war until his defeat. The armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia were all amassed on France’s borders, boxing Napoleon in. Napoleon’s prior victories were won when he took the initiative, striking away from France and when all his enemies were not coming at him at once.

Additionally, his enemies had adapted their tactics accordingly to defeat Napoleon and his Marshals and knew to go after the French armies without Napoleon at their head.

Historian Andrew Roberts argues in his recent book Napoleon: A Life that Waterloo was a battle that Napoleon could have easily won—the younger Napoleon at least.

Napoleon is thought to have made multiple errors during the course of and run-up to Waterloo that sealed his fate. Napoleon left his best general, Louis-Nicolas Davout back in Paris to head the War Department instead of bringing him along to fight. Davout had single-handedly defeated the main Prussian army in 1806 at Auerstedt with only one corps, 28,000 French soldiers against 63,000 Prussian soldiers.


The Time Napoleon Was Attacked by Rabbits

History tells us that Napoleon’s most upsetting defeat came at Waterloo. Or it may have occurred eight years earlier, after the French emperor was attacked by a relentless horde of rabbits.

There are a couple versions of this story. Most agree it happened in July 1807, after Napoleon signed the Treaties of Tilsit (which ended the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia). Looking to celebrate, the emperor proposed a rabbit hunt, asking Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier to make it happen.

Berthier arranged an outdoor luncheon, invited some of the military’s biggest brass, and collected a colony of rabbits. Some say Berthier took in hundreds of bunnies, while others claim he collected as many as 3000. Regardless, there were a lot of rabbits, and Berthier’s men caged them all along the fringes of a grassy field. When Napoleon started to prowl—accompanied by beaters and gun-bearers—the rabbits were released from their cages. The hunt was on.

But something strange happened. The rabbits didn’t scurry in fright. Instead, they bounded toward Napoleon and his men. Hundreds of fuzzy bunnies gunned it for the world’s most powerful man.

Napoleon’s party had a good laugh at first. But as the onslaught continued, their concern grew. The sea of long-ears was storming Napoleon quicker than revolutionaries had stormed the Bastille. The rabbits allegedly swarmed the emperor’s legs and started climbing up his jacket. Napoleon tried shooing them with his riding crop, as his men grabbed sticks and tried chasing them. The coachmen cracked their bullwhips to scare the siege. But it kept coming.

Napoleon retreated, fleeing to his carriage. But it didn’t stop. According to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.” The flood of bunnies continued—some reportedly leapt into the carriage.

The attack ceased only as the coach rolled away. The man who was dominating Europe was no match for a battle with bunnies.

It was Berthier’s fault. Rather than trapping wild hares, his men had bought tame rabbits from local farmers. As a result, the rabbits didn’t see Napoleon as a fearsome hunter. They saw him as a waiter bringing out the day’s food. To them, the emperor was effectively a giant head of lettuce.


You have a rather quirky background. Tell us about ‘the Peculiar People’ and how you came to America?

Those two are hardly connected. The Peculiar People were a sect in Essex in England. I was a war baby. My father was a Canadian Airman and my mother was in the Women’s Royal Air Force in Britain. They should never have met. But I was the result.

I was adopted by this couple that belonged to the Peculiar People. They were essentially evangelicals, with a huge list of things of which they disapproved: cosmetics, films, theatre, even symphony concerts, books that weren’t the Bible or Christian books, Roman Catholics, wine, tobacco, and television. They absolutely detested television. It was an uncomfortable and awkward childhood.

But I ended up going into television [as a career] and while I was working for the BBC in Northern Ireland, an American blonde walked out of an elevator. I said to the reporter I was filming with, “I’m gonna marry that one.” And I did.


Battle for Paris 1815: The Untold Story of the Fighting after Waterloo

On the morning of 3 July 1815, the French General Rémi Joseph Isidore Exelmans, at the head of a brigade of dragoons, fired the last shots in the defence of Paris until the Franco-Prussian War sixty-five years later. Why did he do so? Traditional stories of 1815 end with Waterloo, that fateful day of 18 June, when Napoleon Bonaparte fought and lost his last battle, abdicating his throne on 22 June.

So why was Exelmans still fighting for Paris? Surely the fighting had ended on 18 June? Not so. Waterloo was not the end, but the beginning of a new and untold story.

Seldom studied in French histories and virtually ignored by English writers, the French Army fought on after Waterloo. At Versailles, Sevres, Rocquencourt and elsewhere, the French fought off the Prussian army. In the Alps and along the Rhine other French armies fought the Allied armies, and General Rapp defeated the Austrians at La Souffel – the last great battle and the last French victory of the Napoleonic Wars.

Many other French commanders sought to reverse the defeat of Waterloo. Bonapartist and irascible, General Vandamme, at the head of 3rd and 4th Corps, was, for example, champing at the bit to exact revenge on the Prussians. General Exelmans, ardent Bonapartist and firebrand, likewise wanted one final, defining battle to turn the war in favour of the French.

Marshal Grouchy, much maligned, fought his army back to Paris by 29 June, with the Prussians hard on his heels. On 1 July, Vandamme, Exelmans and Marshal Davout began the defence of Paris. Davout took to the field in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris along with regiments of the Imperial Guard and battalions of National Guards.

For the first time ever, using the wealth of archive material held in the French Army archives in Paris, along with eyewitness testimonies from those who were there, Paul Dawson brings alive the bitter and desperate fighting in defence of the French capital. The 100 Days Campaign did not end at Waterloo, it ended under the walls of Paris fifteen days later.

About the Author

Paul L. Dawson BSc Hons MA, MIFA, FINS, is a historian, field archaeologist and author who has written more than twenty books, his specialty being the French Army of the Napoleonic Wars. As well as speaking French and having an in-depth knowledge of French archival sources, Paul is also an historical tailor producing museum-quality replica clothing, the study of which has given him a unique understanding of the Napoleonic era.


How the French won the battle of Waterloo (or think they did)

Two centuries after the battle of Waterloo, the French are still in denial, says writer Stephen Clarke. As soon as the cannons stopped firing in June 1815, French historians began rewriting history, diminishing the Anglo-Prussian victory and naming Napoleon the moral victor…

This competition is now closed

Published: June 18, 2021 at 7:05 am

It can come as something of a shock to read Napoleon Bonaparte’s official account of Waterloo, written on 20 June 1815, two days after the battle. A key phrase reads: “After eight hours of firing and infantry and cavalry charges, the whole [French] army was able to look with satisfaction upon a battle won and the battlefield in our possession.”

Given that the first cannon shots were fired at about 11am, this would mean that as night fell, Napoleon was victorious. And yet almost every historian since 1815 has stated unequivocally that the battle was won by the armies of the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian ally General Gebhard Blücher, and that France’s defeat at Waterloo effectively put an end to Napoleon’s reign as emperor. So how could he possibly “look with satisfaction upon a battle won”?

To find the answer, it is necessary to read a little further into the report, where Napoleon concedes that “at about 8:30pm” some French troops mistakenly thought that his invincible Old Guard were fleeing the battlefield, and panicked. He explains that “the confusion of the night made it impossible to rally the troops and show them that they were mistaken”. It sounds here less like a lost battle than an abandoned football match.

And it wasn’t only the soon-to-be-deposed emperor of France who rewrote accepted historical fact about Waterloo. A French veteran of the battle, Captain Marie Jean Baptise Lemonnier-Delafosse, claimed in his memoirs: “It wasn’t Wellington who won his defence was stubborn and admirably energetic, but he was pushed back and beaten.”

Crucially, though, Captain Lemonnier-Delafosse goes on to add that Waterloo was an “extraordinary battle, the only one in which there were two losers: first the English, then the French”. So he admits defeat, albeit in a confusing way.

What Lemonnier-Delafosse means is that Napoleon beat Wellington, and then lost to Blücher when the Prussians arrived on the battlefield after dark. This is a key argument, because it suggests that Napoleon emerged from 18 June with one victory and one defeat. We’re back to a football analogy: at Waterloo, Napoleon won a score draw. In other words, he wasn’t a total loser. And for Napoleon’s admirers, past and present, this has always been the essential point.

Even today, there is a sub-species of historian (mostly French, unsurprisingly) dedicated to preserving this notion of ‘Napoleon Bonaparte, the winner’. They present him as a great general who may have suffered setbacks in Russia in 1812 (when he lost about half a million soldiers and was forced to abandon all his territorial gains) and Belgium in 1815 (though don’t forget Waterloo was a draw), but who, when all the battles are totted up, was a winner – France’s greatest-ever hero, who expanded the nation’s boundaries until French-dominated Europe stretched from Portugal to Poland, and from the Baltic to the southern tip of Italy. Almost the only piece missing from his empire-building puzzle was Britain.

This is why Waterloo is so important, and why controversy is still raging about it (in French minds, at least) – it was fought against France’s ancient enemy, the English, with whom it had been at war practically non-stop since 1337. Britain was almost the only European country that Napoleon never managed to invade. It was already a black mark on his map of Europe before Waterloo, so British attempts to glorify it as a French defeat threaten to deliver the coup de grâce to Napoleon’s memory.

All of which explains the perversely twisted arguments that Bonapartist historians have given to diminish the Anglo-Prussian victory of June 1815, ever since Napoleon did so in his post-battle report.

One of their classic arguments is that Wellington cheated. A year earlier, he had predicted that the open farmland south of Brussels might be the site of a standoff between British and French forces in the region, and had found the ridge where he would align his soldiers on 17 June 1815. Some might argue that reconnoitering for higher ground in a strategic location was intelligent military planning – to Bonapartists, though, it was cheating.

Once the battlefield was chosen, many French historians argue that any hope of victory for Napoleon’s men was dashed by the incompetence of his generals. They cite a long list of mistakes made by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, who lost 5,000 lives in a pointless attack when he had been ordered to create a simple diversion at the start of the battle by Marshal Michel Ney, who led several ill-timed cavalry charges and by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, who was sent to scout for Prussians and simply disappeared for the day, stopping at one point to enjoy some fresh strawberries. That fruity picnic has haunted his family name ever since.

But the sad fact was that after more than a decade of continuous war, a critical number of Napoleon’s most gifted and most faithful generals were dead. In the early 19th century, generals led their troops from the front, and stayed almost permanently in the firing line. Napoleon’s most faithful men had fallen in battle. Others had betrayed him during the political upheavals in France in 1814, when Napoleon was deposed for the first time. Many French troops later complained in their memoirs that their officers didn’t believe in Napoleon’s cause.

If uncommitted officers weren’t enough, Napoleon is also said to have been hampered by the weather. Rain poured out of the Belgian sky all night before the battle, forcing the French soldiers to sleep in puddles and preventing Napoleon from manoeuvring his cannons – his favourite weapon – into place. Of course the rain also fell on Wellington’s men, but that doesn’t matter in Bonapartist eyes. As the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo put it: “If it hadn’t rained on the night of 17-18 June, the future of Europe would have been different. A few raindrops more or less felled Napoleon.”

Hugo implies that this rain didn’t come by chance – God himself had decided that Napoleon was just too great: “The excessive importance of this man in world destiny was unbalancing things… Waterloo wasn’t a battle. It was a change in the direction of the universe.” It was therefore impossible for Napoleon to win at Waterloo, Hugo concludes: “Because of Wellington? Because of Blücher? No, because of God.” With enemies like that, no friends could help.

Napoleon was also troubled by his health. According to various accounts he was suffering from piles, a urinary infection, a glandular condition and/or syphilis. One of Napoleon’s 20th-century French biographers, Max Gallo, describes what must be the worst case of hemorrhoids in literary history, with “thick, black blood, heavy and burning hot, flowing through [Napoleon’s] lower body, swelling the veins until they were fit to burst”. Riding a horse on the battlefield was bound to be agony. The implication of these health stories is of course that the great champion wasn’t entirely fit on the day he was forced to fight.

It is because of all his sufferings that Napoleon’s supporters refuse to look upon him as the loser of Waterloo. On the contrary, these setbacks were the very reason that Victor Hugo and others claim that Napoleon’s men won the moral victory: outnumbered by two armies to one, led by second-string generals, frowned (and rained) upon by the creator of the universe, they still put up a glorious fight.

The Bonapartists point to a crucial moment towards the end of the battle. As the French retreated, one group of 550 men did so without breaking ranks – this was a battalion of the Garde, led by General Pierre Cambronne. However, they were quickly surrounded by Wellington’s infantrymen, backed up with cannons, who called on the Frenchmen to surrender. Cambronne famously replied “merde!” (“shit”). Some say he added: “The Garde dies but never surrenders,” although he later denied this, explaining: “I’m not dead and I surrendered.”

Hearing this insulting rebuff, the British artillery opened fire from point-blank range and wiped out almost all of the 550, who instantly became martyrs – and in some French eyes, victors. Victor Hugo went so far as to claim: “The man who won the battle of Waterloo was Cambronne. Unleashing deadly lightning with such a word counts as victory.” And a more modern Bonapartist, the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, went further, saying that this “merde” created “a new idea of Frenchness”, a defiant nation that believes in its own superiority despite any proof to the contrary.

It is true that, even as early as the 1820s, impoverished France almost relished the fact that it was being left behind by the (British-led) industrial revolution, and began to concentrate on its traditional industries such as the production of unique regional cheeses and wines, the distillation of perfumes from its native plants and hand-made high-quality clothes. Villepin suggests that the global importance of these French industries today are victories that sprung directly from Waterloo.

This is not to forget Napoleon’s personal victory. In July 1815, when he was briefly brought to England as a prisoner, a thousand boats filled Plymouth Sound harbour, with locals desperate to get a glimpse of the famous Frenchman, and, according to a British sailor, “blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate” if they succeeded. Until the order was given to exile Napoleon to Saint Helena, he seriously believed that he could retire as a celebrity in England.

Despite his exile in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte’s fame has since spread throughout the world. His supporters point to the fact that his tomb in Paris is bigger, and more frequently visited by tourists, than that of any king of France. They rightly remind us that the legal system Napoleon founded, the Code Civil, is still used right across Europe. If further proof of Napoleon’s enduring fame is needed, one of his black hats sold at auction in 2015 for 1.8 million euros, to a Korean industrialist who planned to display it in the foyer of his head office to show that he too was a winner.

Indeed, while he was alive, Napoleon always dressed in his own unique style. On a recent visit to the new museum at Waterloo I counted the statuettes on sale in the souvenir shop, and the figurines of Napoleon in his trademark hat and greatcoat outnumbered Wellington and Blücher by at least five to one – clearly, the Bonaparte brand image lives on.

In short, Napoleon might have lost on 18 June 1815 (and the debate about that continues in France), but it is hard to deny that his highly vocal admirers are right – he has won the battle of history.

Stephen Clarke is the author of How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did) (Century, 2015).

This article was first published by History Extra in August 2016


1815: The Final Surrender of the Great Napoleon Bonaparte

His previous surrender in 1814, when he ended up on the island of Elba, was not definitive because Napoleon managed to restore his power, set sail from Elba to France, gather a large army and confront the European powers once more at the Battle of Waterloo. In that battle he reached the threshold of victory, but the French forces were overpowered by the united British and Prussians.

After the defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon retreated to France, as far away from hostile attacks, on the very Atlantic coast. He settled on the small island of Île-d’Aix in the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles from the French coast.

He intended to flee to the United States, but the British ships blocked the shore so he would not be able to escape. Since he in no way wanted to surrender to the French royalists or the Austrians, his sworn enemies, he began to consider the possibility to seek asylum from the British, either to settle in England or that they transport him to the United States.

He started negotiations with the English Captain Frederick Maitland, who commanded the ship HMS Bellerophon (74 guns), which was anchored near the islet making sure that Napoleon could not escape by sea. On this day Napoleon finally agreed to board the British ship and de facto surrender to the British. Ship’s captain politely received Napoleon, gave him a large cabin and ordered a course for Britain.

The journey lasted for about a week and during that time Napoleon had a routine to stroll along the deck every afternoon, where the British sailors and officers took off their hats out of respect and kept polite distance, talking with him only if they were spoken to. Finally, HMS Bellerophon arrived in the English port. When it was learned that Napoleon was on board, it created a sensation among the population, but the British Lord Keith ordered that Napoleon must remain isolated.

He remained on board for two weeks, until the British government finally decided what to do with him. They refused all his requests for transportation to the United States or for settlement in Britain and determined to place him on a remote island of Saint Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which is more than 2,000 kilometers away from the nearest continent – Africa. Napoleon died on St. Helena less than six years later.


This week in history: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

On Sunday, June 18, 1815, Napoleon fought his last battle at Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was to be the first step in the re-creation of the former French empire but ultimately saw Napoleon forced to abdicate for the second time, never to return.

After Napoleon's disastrous 1812 war in Russia, the emperor's enemies had begun to multiply. More defeats followed, and by spring 1814, British, Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies had invaded France itself. Forced to abdicate under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba and Louis XVIII, younger brother of the beheaded Louis XVI, ascended the throne.

Restless on the island and aware of discontent within France toward the restored monarchy, Napoleon sailed back to France in March 1815 and soon began marching north toward Paris. Louis sent generals south to stop his advance, not only to protect his own position but to ensure continued peace in Europe. Every military force sent to stop the returned emperor soon joined his ranks, however.

Marshal Michel Ney, who owed his dramatic rise to power to Napoleon but was now eager to prove his loyalty to the new regime, promised the king he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage. Ney, like the others sent to stop Napoleon, was soon seduced by the emperor's promises and joined him once again.

Meanwhile, the allies that had defeated Napoleon one year earlier were conducting a peace conference in Vienna. When they heard the emperor was marching on Paris, they wasted no time in constituting their armies to defend against renewed French aggression.

The Russian army, always a slow and lumbering beast, would take its time reaching western Europe, so the Austrians deployed to protect the French approaches into Germany while the British and Prussian armies assembled in Belgium to protect the Low Countries.

On March 20, the French people and army welcomed Napoleon back to Paris and the emperor, keenly aware that his legitimacy had always depended on military victory and wartime emergency powers, delighted when his enemies now declared war on him personally — not on the nation of France.

In his book “Napoleon's Wars: An International History,” historian Charles Esdaile wrote: “With relatively few allied troops ready to take the field, the emperor could now either wait for the massive invasion that the Seventh Coalition was certain to mount as soon as it had brought up sufficient men or take the offensive and secure a dramatic victory that might win time for his regime to consolidate its hold on France or even shatter his enemies' resolve. …

"Nor did it take much time to work out that the obvious targets at which to strike were the Anglo-Dutch-German army of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army of Field Marshal Blücher. . ”

Napoleon crossed the frontier into Belgium on June 15 at the head of an army approximately 72,000 strong. While the allied generals theoretically commanded roughly 118,000 troops, many were Dutch and Belgian troops whose loyalty was questionable. Many of those men had fought under Napoleon as imperial troops, so perhaps they, too, could be persuaded to join their former master.

Despite the desperate situation for the British, the Duke of Wellington attended a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. Putting on an unconcerned face during the festivities so not alarm the guests, Wellington met with his officers secretly in a back room.

James Harris, the Earl of Malmesbury, recorded that fateful discussion in his diary: “The Duke shut the door and said, 'Napoleon has humbugged me, by Gad! He has gained 24 hours' march on me.' The Duke of Richmond said, 'What do you intend doing?' The Duke of Wellington replied, 'I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre-Bras but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here' (at the same time passing his thumbnail over the position of Waterloo).”

Two inconclusive engagements at Quatre-Bras and Lingy occurred the next day, June 16. Though they were tactical draws, both Wellington and Blücher retreated in order to fight under more favorable conditions, boosting the morale of Napoleon and his men.

Critically, however, Napoleon had succeeded in separating Wellington's force, which had retreated north toward his chosen battlefield of Waterloo, from Blücher's Prussian army, which retreated eastward. Dividing his forces, Napoleon ordered the Marquis de Grouchy to follow and defeat the retreating Prussians while he made plans to crush Wellington.

At Waterloo two days later, the British, Dutch and German forces under Wellington assembled on the northern hill while Napoleon deployed to the hill on the south. The British also fortified a position in the middle of the valley between, a large farmhouse on the British right called Hougoumont. As the morning dawned on Sunday, June 18, the two armies, still wet from an evening downpour the night before, prepared for battle.

Sometime between 10 and 11:30 a.m. (accounts vary), the French launched a massive attack on the farmhouse, which would be admirably held throughout the day by British, Scottish and German units.

About an hour later, after a massive artillery barrage, the French infantry attacked toward the British center, which again was rebuffed. Emboldened, the British launched a cavalry charge in order to cut down the French infantry. Napoleon, however, launched his own cavalry into the mix, inflicting severe losses on the British.

Napoleon was growing desperate for a decision, however, as his intelligence had spotted Prussian forces marching toward Waterloo, with no sign of Grouchy to reinforce his own army. The battle at Hougoumont was still raging and the main British line on the hill hadn't yet been broken.

Commanding the French left, Ney, too, was perceiving that defeat was approaching unless something was done quickly. Another infantry attack was out of the question, as most units were preparing for the Prussian blow on the French right or still engaged at Hougoumont.

Seeing movement in the middle of the British line and misinterpreting it as the beginning of a retreat, Ney on his own initiative ordered his cavalry to attack without infantry or artillery support, an incredibly dangerous maneuver that left his horsemen vulnerable.

Beginning at about 4 p.m., Ney's massed cavalry attack ultimately included nearly 10,000 horsemen. As they approached the British lines, however, Wellington's troops formed squares. This formation of tightly packed men with their bayonets extended ensured that horses would veer away rather than charge, and without accompanying infantry to break up the squares, the British troops were virtually invulnerable to the French attack.

In his book “Wellington and Napoleon: Clash of Arms, 1807-1815,” historian Robin Neillands wrote: “The British and Allied infantry came to welcome the presence of the French cavalry, which did them comparatively little harm and caused the French artillery to cease firing on the squares until the cavalry had cleared away.

"Wellington now ordered his own cavalry reserves to advance and the French troopers were driven from the plateau, but their attack was renewed again and again, until the slope of the ridge and the ground around the squares was carpeted with dead and wounded men and horses.”

Ney's failure is cited by many as the critical failure of the day and is often seen as the movement that lost the battle for Napoleon. Ney organized another attack, this time with support, but by then it was too little, too late.

The Prussians, arriving just in time, soon hit the French right, and Napoleon found himself now fighting a largely defensive struggle. And yet even now Napoleon would not give up. When an opening in the British line on the right appeared to present itself at about 7 that evening, the emperor ordered one last great attack, throwing his elite Imperial Guard into the fighting. Though initial gains were made, the British held and the Imperial Guard was forced to retreat.

After that, the entire French line began to fall apart. Napoleon would retreat from the battlefield, briefly entertaining the thought of creating another army before finally surrendering himself to the allies. He would eventually be exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he would die in 1821. Ney would be shot by the allies a few months after the battle for switching loyalties one time too many. The Duke of Wellington would go on to become prime minister and one of the most celebrated figures in British history.

Total casualties (killed, captured, wounded) amounted to roughly 51,000 for the French (more than two-thirds of their initial strength) and 24,000 for the allies. After touring the battlefield after the fighting, Wellington famously remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”


Why Did Napoleon and Grouchy Behave as They Did During the Battle of Waterloo?

I am very fascinated with the Battle of Waterloo and all of Napoleon’s battles.

I wonder why Napoleon attacked frontally in the Battle of Waterloo instead of manouvering around the right flank of Wellington’s army. Was it because he wanted to save time by crushing Wellington before the Prussians arrived? Wasn’t Napoleon aware of Wellington’s reverse hill deployment (as his generals would have so advised)?

And why did Grouchy not march to the sound of the guns? At this stage I would assume that he has completely lost track of the Prussian Blucher.

Hope you can provide some insight into these mysteries.

Napoleon’s plan from first contact with the Allied armies in Belgium was a grander variation on what he’d done during his early Italian campaigns: take advantage of the central position to divide and conquer. On June 16, 1815, his corps had fought separate battles against British General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington at Quartre Bras and Prussian Feldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at Ligny. Although the Prussians were defeated at Ligny, they fell back in good order and Napoleon badly underestimated how far back they were or how quickly they would regroup and return. Still, to continue pursuing his strategy his original plan for Wellington was to try to seize Mont Saint Jean and Hougoumont farm, the latter of which would sever Wellington’s communications to the sea, and therefore, he expected, would compel Wellington to send in his reserves to recapture it. As those reserves were drawn in, Napoleon would use the reserve artillery of the I, II and VI Corps to decimate those troops and then send his I Corps around Wellington’s left to roll up his forces, pushing them further away from the Prussians. Meanwhile, Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy had orders to pursue the Prussians to Wavre while staying close enough to join the main force as soon as possible.

Among other things, Napoleon acted on the assumption that Wellington’s main battle line was in the village of Waterloo, rather than farther forward, on the ridge. He also assumed that it would take the Prussians at least two days to regroup, unaware that in fact Blücher would lead his army back to the fray about five hours after it began. While that happened, Grouchy dutifully sought contact with the retreating Prussians and defeated them at Wavre (June 18-19), not realizing until too late that he was only dealing with General Johann von Thielmann’s III Corps, while the bulk of the Prussian army was striking at his emperor.

The failure of the French to ever suss out Wellington’s frequent habit of positioning his infantry on the reverse slope and take measures to deal with it is a mystery that nobody has explained. All we know is that Napoleon was in good company when he too failed to anticipate the tactic’s effectiveness at Waterloo. As Wellington put it in retrospect, “They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way.”

Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History
www.historynet.com

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Napoleon defeated at Waterloo - HISTORY

At Waterloo in Belgium, Napoleon Bonaparte suffers defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington, bringing an end to the Napoleonic era of European history.

The Corsica-born Napoleon, one of the greatest military strategists in history, rapidly rose in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army during the late 1790s. By 1799, France was at war with most of Europe, and Napoleon returned home from his Egyptian campaign to take over the reigns of the French government and save his nation from collapse. After becoming first consul in February 1800, he reorganized his armies and defeated Austria. In 1802, he established the Napoleonic Code, a new system of French law, and in 1804 was crowned emperor of France in Notre Dame Cathedral. By 1807, Napoleon controlled an empire that stretched from the River Elbe in the north, down through Italy in the south, and from the Pyrenees to the Dalmatian coast.

Beginning in 1812, Napoleon began to encounter the first significant defeats of his military career, suffering through a disastrous invasion of Russia, losing Spain to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War, and enduring total defeat against an allied force by 1814. Exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, he escaped to France in early 1815 and set up a new regime. As allied troops mustered on the French frontiers, he raised a new Grand Army and marched into Belgium. He intended to defeat the allied armies one by one before they could launch a united attack.

On June 16, 1815, he defeated the Prussians under Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher at Ligny, and sent 33,000 men, or about one-third of his total force, in pursuit of the retreating Prussians. On June 18, Napoleon led his remaining 72,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington's 68,000-man allied army, which had taken up a strong position 12 miles south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo.

In a fatal blunder, Napoleon waited until mid-day to give the command to attack in order to let the ground dry. The delay in fighting gave Blucher's troops, who had eluded their pursuers, time to march to Waterloo and join the battle by the late afternoon.

In repeated attacks, Napoleon failed to break the center of the allied center. Meanwhile, the Prussians gradually arrived and put pressure on Napoleon's eastern flank. At 6 p.m., the French under Marshal Michel Ney managed to capture a farmhouse in the allied center and began decimating Wellington's troops with artillery. Napoleon, however, was preoccupied with the 30,000 Prussians attacking his flank and did not release troops to aid Ney's attack until after 7 p.m. By that time, Wellington had reorganized his defenses, and the French attack was repulsed.

Napoleon returned to Paris and on June 22 abdicated in favor of his son. He decided to leave France before counterrevolutionary forces could rally against him, and on July 15 he surrendered to British protection at the port of Rochefort. He hoped to travel to the United States, but the British instead sent him to Saint Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Napoleon protested but had no choice but to accept the exile. With a group of followers, he lived quietly on St. Helena for six years.

In May 1821, he died, most likely of stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. In 1840, his body was returned to Paris, and a magnificent funeral was held. Napoleon's body was conveyed through the Arc de Triomphe and entombed under the dome of the Invalides.