Today marks the two-hundred fourth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. On June 18, 1815, on the fields near Waterloo in central Belgium, 72,000 French troops, led by Napoleon, suffered a crushing military defeat from a combined Allied army of 113,000 British, Dutch, Belgian, and Prussian troops. Thus ended 23 years of almost constant warfare between France and the other powers of Europe.
More than a year earlier Napoleon, weakened by his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, had finally been overwhelmed by combined armies from Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden. He was forced to abdicate and was sent into exile on Elba, an island off the Italian coast. Louis XVIII, brother of former King Louis XVI, was placed on the French throne. But Napoleon was not through. Napoleon slipped out of Elba in late February 1815, and on March 1st he landed on the French Mediterranean coast and began making his way towards Paris. Most French citizens appeared to support his return, and troops sent by Louis XVIII to arrest him defected to the old emperor’s standard. Louis had to flee instead.
Representative of the various European states were meeting in Vienna, and they immediately labeled Napoleon an outlaw and began to assemble armies for his defeat. Napoleon responded in kind, and he gathered a new army to deal with the threat. As quickly as possible he struck north into Belgium to deal with the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies forming near Brussels. Each of these armies was approximately equal to the French army in size. His only hope was to defeat each in turn before they could combine against him. First he struck the Prussian army at Ligny, and after a day of intense combat he forced the Prussians to retreat. Marshal Grouchy’s corps was detached to harass the retreating Prussians while Napoleon turned his attention to Wellington and the Anglo-Dutch army at Waterloo.
The fighting at Waterloo was fierce. The core of Wellington’s army consisted of veteran British regiments from the Peninsular Wars, and they fought superbly. Nevertheless, the French were ferocious in their attack and appeared to be poised for success. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Marshal Grouchy had lost contact with the main part of the Prussian army, and shortly after noon Prussian troops began appearing on the field of Waterloo alongside their British allies. The combination was too much to overcome, and by the end of the day the French army was broken and in full retreat. Napoleon surrendered to the British and was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena, off the coast of Africa.
On May 5, 1821, the former Emperor of the French and master of Europe died on the tiny island, abandoned by everyone except a few faithful retainers.