June 15, 2015 / 2:28 PM / 4 years ago

Waterloo: Napoleon's last battle, 200 years on

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ceremonies and re-enactments will mark this week’s bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.

This is what happened in 1815:

“THE 100 DAYS”

Exiled on Elba, off Italy, after defeat the previous year by the four allied powers — Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain — Napoleon escaped on Feb. 26. He was back in Paris on March 20, 1815, and reinstalled as emperor. King Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, who had been executed by revolutionaries in 1793, had fled.


With the allies preparing to attack, Napoleon marched north to pre-empt the British and Dutch, under the Duke of Wellington, linking up with the Prussians. He crossed the Dutch border into what is now Belgium early on June 15 with 105,000 men. On June 16, his forces beat Marshal Bluecher’s Prussians at Ligny and forced Wellington’s soldiers back at nearby Quatre-Bras.


On the morning of Sunday, June 18, Wellington placed his 68,000 men — 25,000 British, 26,000 Germans and 17,000 Dutch/Belgians — across the road to Brussels at Waterloo, 20 km (12 miles) south of the city. They commanded high ground and farmhouses at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, whose defense was to prove vital in halting the French.

Napoleon had 72,000 men, having sent Marshal Grouchy with 33,000 to find Bluecher’s 45,000 Prussians. Waiting to deploy his cannon after heavy rain overnight had soaked the ground, Napoleon delayed his assault until 11 a.m. That may have been fatal, giving Bluecher time to evade Grouchy and join the battle in late afternoon, just as Wellington feared all was lost.

The slaughter caused by musket, cannon shot, sabre and bayonet on the compact field was extreme even by standards of the day. The French lost 25,000 killed and wounded, Wellington 15,000 and the Prussians 8,000. “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost is half so melancholy as a battle won,” wrote Wellington, who called it “the nearest-run thing you ever saw”.


Napoleon fled to Paris, where he was again forced into exile, this time to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died six years later aged 51. Wellington, the “Iron Duke”, was 46 at the time of Waterloo. He went on to become British prime minister and died laden with honors in 1852.

The Congress of Vienna redrew the borders of Europe and set up a balance of powers that historians credit with preventing a new continental war for nearly a century, until 1914.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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