Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Stand
By Dr Asif Javed
On a hot and humid day, two hundred years ago, two armies faced each other at Waterloo. There were 140,000 soldiers and 30,000 horses, all crammed inside an area under three square miles; another 60,000 men were only a few miles away. Both armies were led by outstanding Generals: the French by Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably one of the best military minds of all time while his opponent on that day was the formidable Duke of Wellington, who had fought against Sultan Tipu in India and had defeated some of the best French Marshals in Spain. “Wellington had the measure of the French,” writes John Man. It was at Waterloo that these two military giants had their long anticipated showdown.
The battle began at 11:30 AM with massive cannonade by the French. An infantry assault led by Napoleon’s brother, that failed to capture a chateau, was followed by devastating cavalry charges. Wellington intended to fight a defensive battle; he had placed his front lines on the reverse slope of a three mile long ridge that separated two armies. In the center and at both ends of his line were three farm houses that he used to great advantage.
The fighting was ferocious; at one point, a British soldier asked another whether the battle of Waterloo will be an exception in the annals of humanity and there will be no survivors. Marshal Ney of France—Napoleon once called him the bravest of the brave—“had three horses killed beneath him and was almost speechless with rage and exhaustion,” writes David Chandler, Head of War Studies at Royal Military Academy.
Napoleon had to attack and win quickly. Aware that Prussian reinforcements for British were approaching, he unleashed his full fury against the British lines which though weakened, did not break. In desperation, the Emperor decided to use his elite and much feared Imperial Guards who had the well-deserved reputation of being invincible. Napoleon personally led them forward and handed them over to Marshall Ney.
The menacing sight of Guard’s advance seized the British line with terror. That was the critical moment of the battle. Such are the moments that create legends and destroy reputations. “The excitement was at fever pitch,” writes Elizabeth Longford, Wellington’s biographer. “Vive l’ Empereur!’ the Guards roared again and again in an ecstasy of pride, joy and gratitude.”
But then the unthinkable happened; the British line held and poured such sustained and devastating volleys that the Guards initially hesitated and then began to withdraw. Sensing victory, Wellington ordered a general advance with the order, “No cheering my lads--but forward and complete your victory.” The whole British line surged forward and the French army was put to flight. What had been the best army of its time in the morning was a horde of fugitives by the end of the day. The Imperial Guard made a heroic attempt to cover the French army’s retreat by forming a square. Asked to surrender, their General gave the immortal reply: “The Guard dies but never surrenders.” The British guns opened up at the square; only a few Guards survived.
It was a complete victory for the British and their allies. Napoleon escaped but finding his situation hopeless, surrendered a few days later; he was banished to St Helena in South Atlantic where he died a few years later, still agonizing over what might have been. No major battle was to follow Waterloo until the 1st WW.
When it was all over, Wellington surveyed the battle ground on his horse and said: “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is to gain one; it was the most desperate business I ever was in…I hope to God that I have fought my last battle.” Wellington had realized the extent of the carnage: there were 65,000 casualties in a battle that had lasted barely ten hours. His wish was granted; Waterloo was to be his last battle.
Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? Many historians believe that he delayed the attack by many hours, thus enabling the Prussians to arrive and save the day for the British. Poor choice of commanders was a factor too; Berthier, Napoleon’s renowned chief-of-staff, was missing; his replacement, Soult sent confusing and contradictory messages to the field commanders. As a result, one-third of the French army under Marshall Grouchy, remained idle, just a few miles away from Waterloo. Napoleon also refused reinforcements to Marshal Ney at a critical moment; the delay allowed Wellington to stabilize his disintegrating center. Napoleon also underestimated Wellington. He ridiculed him as a ‘sepoy general’. The French Marshalls who had fought Wellington in Spain, were apprehensive. But Napoleon was confident and felt that the odds were in his favor by 90 to 10. “Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair nothing more than eating breakfast,” Napoleon said to his staff on the morning of the battle.
Wellington kept his nerve even though the battle appeared almost lost at one point. In those desperate moments, he was seen looking at his watch and was overheard saying, “Give me night or give me Prussians.” Uxbridge, Wellington’s second-in-command, asked him of his battle plan. “To defeat the French,” was the calm reply from Wellington as he pretended to resume his nap, before the action began. In the heat of battle, an English gunner approached Wellington and asked for permission to take a direct shot at Napoleon whom he had identified at some distance. “The generals have better things to do than keep firing at each other,” the aristocratic Wellington replied.
Wellington had a knack for paying attention to detail: he had even looked at Waterloo as a possible battle site some time earlier; he was well versed with the Napoleonic warfare, having fought the French in Spain for six years. Unlike others, Wellington refused to be intimidated by his illustrious opponent.
After Waterloo, some French veterans found their way to India. At least three of them were in the employment of Raja Ranjeet Singh in Punjab where they molded his Fauj-e-khas into a formidable fighting force, trained on European lines. One of them, Avitable, gained notoriety by his harsh treatment of restless Pathans at Peshawar; another, Allard, died at Lahore; his tomb is still present in old Anarkali.
The battle of Waterloo was a watershed in the annals of warfare. It has left its mark on the world stage. Many cities around the world have been named after the sleepy village that lies south of Brussels. It has even found its way in literature; Victor Hugo was to devote one full chapter in his masterpiece, Les Miserables, to Waterloo.
Wellington and Napoleon are long gone. But if they were to return to earth now, they may fail to recognize the geopolitical changes in their homelands. Britain and France are connected via Euro Tunnel and Napoleon’s dream of a United Europe has almost become a reality. As for the battleground, some overzealous politician got a huge mound built there that has swallowed up the famous ridge used so effectively by Wellington on that fateful day of June 18th 1815.
References cited: The Illustrated Napoleon by David Chandler; Wellington by Elizabeth Longford; Battlefields Then & Now by John Man; Waterloo, 1970 movie by Sergei Bondarchuk.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)