The Battle of Waterloo in 1815: how and why Napoleon was finally defeated

There Battle of Waterloofought on June 18, 1815 in Belgium, it was the final act of the epic of Napoleon Bonaparte. It occurred during the War of the Seventh Coalition and saw the French troops, led by Napoleon, clash with those of the Anglo-Prussian coalition commanded by the Duke of Wellington and Federal Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, who emerged victorious.

Napoleon, who in 1814 had been confined to the Island of Elba, had regained the throne in March 1815 and had tried, unsuccessfully, to find an agreement with the other European powers. The war, which began in June, seemed to be in the French's favor and when he faced the English army on Waterloo Plain, Napoleon was certain of victory. The arrival of the troops of Prussiaally of United Kingdom, turned his plans upside down. There defeat cost Napoleon the loss of his throne and the exile to St. Helena.

Battle of Waterloo
  • 1The background: Napoleon's escape from Elba and the Hundred Days
  • 2The beginning of the war between the European powers and Napoleon's France
  • 3The 4 day Waterloo campaign
  • 4The Battle of Waterloo: the 8 hours of fighting
  • 5The aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo

The background: Napoleon's escape from Elba and the Hundred Days

Napoleon came to power a few years after the beginning of French Revolution. Self-appointed First consul in 1798 e emperor of the French since 1804, he was able to conquer half of Europe, but in 1814 he was forced to renounce the throne, following the disastrous Russian campaign and the defeat suffered by Leipzig. In May 1814 he was confined toElba island, under the control of the English fleet, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France, in the person of Louis XVIII. Napoleon, however, did not give up: he managed to escape from Elba and on March 1, 1815 he landed in France with a group of followers. The troops sent by the king to arrest him took his side. Napoleon marched on Pariswelcomed in many places by cheering crowds, and on March 18th regained the throne. Louis XVIII fled to Belgium.


The emperor sought a compromise with the major European powers – Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom – and wrote letters to several sovereigns, declaring that he had no bellicose intentions. The European powers, which in those days were gathered in Congress of Vienna to define the territorial and political structure of post-Napoleonic Europe, they rejected the peace proposals, declaring Bonaparte a “public enemy”, and formed a coalition with the aim of attacking France and bringing Louis XVIII back to the throne.

The beginning of the war between the European powers and Napoleon's France

Napoleon, realizing that war was inevitable, decided to attack first. He gathered a army of approximately 125,000 men, largely by veterans of the campaigns of previous years, and in June the advance towards Belgium began. The aim was to conquer new territories and, above all, face enemies individually. Each of the armies opposing him was roughly equivalent, in number of soldiers, to the French army and Napoleon, aware of not being able to face them together, wanted defeat the English army (also made up of Dutch and Germans) and that Prussianalready ready for battle, before the forces of Austria and Russia mobilized.

In mid-June 1815 Napoleon crossed the border into Belgium. Day 9 was the Congress of Vienna ended and the European powers wanted to prevent the French army from occupying Brussels, questioning the decisions they had made. Therefore, they sent troops to stop him.

The 4 day Waterloo campaign

In the first days, events seemed to prove Napoleon right, who on 15 June inflicted a defeat on the Prussians, led by Marshal Blücherin the locality of Ligny. At the same time other French troops faced the English, led by Duke of Wellingtonin the nearby town of Quatre-Brasand prevented them from rejoining the Prussians.

Ligny and Quatre Bras. Credits: Hispa.

Napoleon thought he had inflicted significant losses on Blücher's forces and wanted to immediately deal with Wellington's forces, who, having learned of the defeat of their allies, had retreated from Quatre Bras. He thus launched himself in pursuit, but Wellington, aware that the Prussians were still capable of fighting, interrupted the retreat on 17 June and stopped his army on the plain near the La Belle Alliance village, not far from the town of Waterloo. That would have been the site of the battle.

The Battle of Waterloo: the 8 hours of fighting

The night before the battle, Napoleon slept little and badly: he was not worried about the battle, which he considered one of the easiest he had ever fought, but he was afraid that the English might flee and refuse to fight. Wellington, however, had no intention of shying away from the clash, which began on the morning of 18 June. About 74,000 French soldiers faced the 67,000 men of the English army. Napoleon adopted an unscrupulous tactic: charged the enemy head-on and sent only a detachment on the right wing to stop the possible arrival of Prussian troops. The French attacked with cavalry charges, cannon fire and infantry advances. The English put up unexpected resistance but, nevertheless, Napoleon was certain he would win.

In the afternoon, however, the Prussians arrived: first an army corps that had not fought at Ligny and was therefore intact and, later, the bulk of the Prussian army, under the command of Blücher. The French troops tried to resist, but they were semi-encircled by clearly preponderant forces. Defeat was inevitable.

The Battle of Waterloo (credits Ipankonin)
The Battle of Waterloo. Credits: Ipankonin.

The battle had lasted eight hours, during which approximately 25,000 French they had been killed or seriously wounded and another 8,000-10,000 had been taken prisoner. The English, killed and wounded, lost 16,000 men and the Prussians 7,000.

The aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo

After the battle Napoleon was forced to retreat, pursued by the Prussian army, but he didn't intend to give up. His plan was to return to Paris and reorganize the army, but the French parliament, which did not want to continue the war, forced him to relinquish power. The 23 June 1815 Napoleon abdicated: his last military adventure, from his return to France to the Battle of Waterloo, had lasted just over a hundred days. After his abdication, Prussian troops occupied Paris and they restored the Bourbon monarchy. Napoleon, forced to surrender to the English, was confined to Saint Helenaa small island lost in the Atlantic.

Waterloo represented the final collapse of Napoleon's empire, but his exploits were equally fraught with consequences. The European powers tried to restore the old regimeexisting before the French Revolution, but the principles on which the French Revolution was founded, at least in part received by Napoleon and carried by his armies throughout Europe, they had now made their way into many countries. In the following years numerous revolutionary movementswhich broke out across Europe, would demonstrate that a return to the old regime was impossible.