Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome History Society member Allan to the Parish Room to take us through the events of June 18th 1815, when as we all know “Napoleon met his Waterloo”.
Allan's incredible map of the battlefield
We were told that Naploleon was a creation of the French Revolution, at which time he was an artilleryman in the French army, and that Josephine was a manipulator of men who identified him as a man who would go places. She was right because he rose rapidly through the ranks, seizing the new opportunities presented by the Revolution and becoming a general at just 24; he was then given command of the Army of Italy after he suppressed a revolt against the government from royalist insurgents.
Napoleon was heavily defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the culmination of his failed German Campaign and largest European battle before the Great War, involving 600,000 soldiers and 2,200 artillery pieces; between 80 and 110 thousand men were killed, missing or wounded, and the army retreated back to France with the soon to be ex-emperor going to Paris. The allies made it clear they were fighting Napoleon, not the French people, and the Senate was offered generous terms if Napoleon was removed from power, which they duly did. He then renounced his position and in April 1814 was exiled to the small island of Elba, 12 miles off the Italian Tuscan coast, accompanied by a large entourage of around 900 servants and guards, along with his mother and sister; he was also made ruler over the 12,000 inhabitants and strangely allowed to retain the title of Emperor.
Allan then told us the French aristocracy had learnt nothing, because just 300 days later, on 1st March 1815, Napoleon escaped the island to land unopposed in France and began his march to Paris. The French government sent troops against him, but they didn’t want their king back so went across to his side with no shots fired. Napoleon’s return to Paris on 20th March prompted Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria to declare war via a Treaty of Alliance, signed on 25th March.
On 16th June, Napoleon invaded Belgium, hoping to capture Brussels by driving a wedge between the allied army under Wellington and the Prussians under Blucher, the idea being to pick off each army individually. The left wing of the Armee du Nord under Marshall Ney contested the allied army at Quatre Bras, whilst the other wing under Napoleon himself attacked the Prussians. Quatre Bras cost the allies 4,800 men to 4,000 for the French, so the allies won the field but were prevented from coming to Blucher’s aid. Consequently the battle of Ligny became the last military victory for Napoleon, a tactical win but a strategic loss, because the retreating Prussian army was allowed to escape. Hence the scene was now set for a final, decisive battle - a showdown between two of history’s military giants. They were the same age, formidable strategists and had a string of victories behind them; by 18th June, the outcome hung in the balance and the victor would determine the fate of all Europe.
The French army comprised 73,000 men, most of whom were battle-hardened veterans, whilst the allies comprised some 118,000 men, 68,000 anglo-allies and 50,000 Prussians; most were inexperienced and no match man for man against the French, so battle strategy was crucial.
Before describing the battle itself, Allan told us about the weapons to be used that day:
The night before this most infamous battle, Wellington stayed at a Waterloo inn, with Napoleon three miles south; all of their men slept out, with rain falling throughout the night, turning the ground into mud. Wellington expected General Blucher and his Prussian reinforcements to arrive some time later the next day - they were recuperating in Wavre,18 miles east of Waterloo, so with the Prussian and Allied armies separated, Napoleon was confident he could defeat Wellington and make his way to Brussels. Allan then told us about the command and control systems of the combatants - apparently Napoleon didn’t take much care with his orders, whilst Wellington’s were in triplicate, to ensure they always got through. Wellington had also carefully planned his troop positions, mixing the good with the bad and the experienced with the inexperienced.
Positions of Wellington, Napoleon and the Prussians the night before battle
On the morning of battle Wellington established a strong defensive position to block the road to Brussels and stop Napoleon’s advance towards the capital. Knowing he was outnumbered, with approx 68,000 Allied troops against Napoleon's 73,000, he positioned his men behind a ridge, where they were not visible to the French, and three garrisoned farms. A combination of the incline, fields of high corn and well-placed garrisons meant that Wellington had a good vantage point and cover to shield his troops - he hoped to hold the ground until the Prussians arrived.
Positions of Wellington’s and Napoleon's troops on the morning of June 18
Napoleon's mind was also on the terrain, which was sodden from the night's rainfall, making it difficult to move men and guns into position. He decided to delay his first major attack until the ground dried, which was dangerous as it could allow time for Blucher's Prussian army to arrive and join Wellington on the ridge. Instead, Napoleon launched a diversionary attack on Hougoumont farm, hoping to draw out the British and make a dent in their defensive position.
Napoleon began the battle with an assault of large-scale cannon fire before launching the attack on Wellington's most well defended garrison. Led by his brother, 5,000 troops advanced on Hougoumont, outnumbering the 1,500 British holed up inside. Allan told us the French attacked in a formation 200 men wide and 27 deep, who aimed to deploy into an extended line when within 30 yards of their target. Fortified walls made for a strong fortress, so Wellington's guards could fire at the French through holes. Napoleon launched attacks at Hougoumont all day, and at 12.30 they finally broke open the gates, but the British quickly closed them again, trapping 40 French soldiers inside and slaughtering all but one, an 11-year-old drummer boy.
The battle for Hougoumont farm
With Wellington's right flank busy defending Hougoumont, Napoleon seized the opportunity to do some damage to the centre of the British line by sending 18,000 infantry along the road to Brussels to strike a decisive blow. They captured the farm of Papelotte and the area around La Haye Sainte. Victory now looked within Napoleon’s grasp; if he took La Haye Sainte, he could attack the remaining British troops at close range.
Napoleon's troops advance on Hougoumont
Peering through his telescope around 13:00 Napoleon spotted movement in fields to the east and ordered a troop of cavalry to investigate; he had spotted the Prussians though they were still far away. Wellington sent reinforcements to La Haye Sainte, driving back the French. His cavalry commander, Lord Uxbridge, sent two brigades of cavalry over the ridge, and with Napoleon's men advancing towards their line, now was their moment; the cavalry charged, hit the French infantry and sliced through the soldiers on the ground. Napoleon’s line was brutally weakened, but Wellington’s left flank was also damaged so he couldn’t afford to launch another attack without reinforcements.
Napoleon's troops attack La Haye Sainte
Napoleon's cavalry finally reached Blucher's troops near Plancenoit, a village 5 miles east of the battlefield. The Prussians soon captured the high ground north-east of the village; attacking the French hard, Napoleon was forced to commit more troops over the course of the afternoon as the territory changed hands several times. Although Blucher was unable to reach Wellington at the main battle, his efforts meant the French were under pressure and had to split their resources. Wellington could also hear the cannon fire in the distance so knew Blucher had formed his own formidable front line, as promised.
Napoleon was increasingly stretched as his men were fighting on both east and west sides of the battlefield, which in total was about 3 miles wide and 1.5 miles deep. He ordered Marshal Ney to capture La Haye Sainte, Wellington’s central stronghold, and for the next two hours, wave after wave of heavily armoured French soldiers on horseback charged the Allied line. In response, Wellington changed the allied line formation into squares to fend off the 4,000 strong French cavalry, though the new formation made them vulnerable to Napoleon's heavy artillery fire; one British battalion, the 27th Regiment, lost nearly 500 of its 747 men.
The battle for the garrisoned farm of La Haye Sainte
After hours under attack, La Haye Sainte finally fell; Wellington had lost his prize garrison and Napoleon could at last bring French artillery forward to attack the Allied centre - all Wellington could do was defend from behind the ridge and hope the Prussian's arrived with reinforcements.
Wellington on the ridge with a view over the battlefield
With the Allied centre weakened, Napoleon knew Wellington desperately needed Prussian support, so wasted no further time, sending 6,000 Imperial Guard soldiers across the field up towards Wellington on the ridge, marching between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. On the left, they suffered fire from the British held garrison of Hougoumont but those on the right, facing the French-held garrison of La Haye Sainte, made it up over the ridge unhindered.
French retreat as Wellington's troops advance, joined by the Prussians
As the French Imperial Guard advanced, with swords drawn, Wellington's men waited in the long grass behind the ridge. Finally the French broke through the Allied front line, but when they reached the ridge Wellington gave the order to stand and fire. His men fired at almost point blank range; muskets tore through the French soldiers and forced them back, whilst Blucher's forces were now arriving on Wellington's left. The Allied army advanced, pursuing the Imperial Guard, who famously had never been beaten before; Wellington had a chance to kill Napoleon but ordered his men to hold fire and the Emperor was shielded by his men as they fled.
After the last decisive Prussian assault, the field was strewn with tens of thousands of bodies, many were dead, with many others badly wounded and left to die; there were also countless dead and injured horses everywhere. On a bloody battlefield in Belgium, Wellington halted Napoleon’s relentless march towards European domination, securing Britain's role as a key player in Europe. Napoleon was once more exiled, this time to St Helena, a remote volcanic outcrop in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1821. Wellington was a hero, securing a peace deal with France and becoming prime minister in 1828; at last there was peace in Europe after 23 long and bloody years.
The audience were spellbound throughout Allan’s incredibly enthusiastic presentation, and we hope to have him talk to us again on another famous historical battle - watch this space.
Our next events, of our new programme, will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on Wednesday:
19th Sept: Frauds of the 19th Century
Martin Hedges will tell us of the panics, failures and frauds which have always been with us. From Tulipmania and the South Sea Bubble to dotcoms, there have always been con merchants to spin a yarn; so come along and cheer the days when bankers were hanged for playing fast and loose with our money.
17th October: Harvest Home
Memories from the Sudbury/Hadleigh area, as researched by local historian and master story teller Ashley Cooper, of Gestingthorpe Roman Villa and natural history fame.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 20th June 2018