In the first ever special episode of Rex Factor, we had an in-depth look at the Battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon’s French army took on Wellington (Anglo-Allies) and Blucher (Prussia – a German kingdom containing parts of modern-day Germany, Poland, Russia and other countries). We look at the three men responsible for leading their armies into battle on 18 June 1815, their characters, how they got to Waterloo and then finally the epic battle itself. To find out more and to listen to a free preview of the episode (as well as how to purchase the whole thing) read on.
Napoleon was born on 15/08/1769, and unusually for one of the most famous and renowned Frenchmen in history, he was actually Corsican! The island was taken over by the French and initially Napoleon was very much the Corsican nationalist, bemoaning the presence of the French on his island. He was also not as short as is often implied (not least by British cartoons of the time) – the 5″2 often listed refers to a contemporary French measurement which would actually translate to 5″6 in the UK – not exactly basketball height, but about average for the time. Nevertheless, he was instantly recognisable by his bicorne hat, as well as tending to wear a simple green colonel uniform in a bid to cultivate the image of an approachable leader. He was a remarkable individual – incredibly driven and ambitious, inspiring an almost messianic status among his troops and a master of propaganda. His rival, the Duke of Wellington, noted that “His presence on the battlefield made the difference of 40,000 men.”
The French Revolution of 1789 was the making of Napoleon, wherein the French Bourbon monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a republic. After initially fighting against French forces in Corsica, Napoleon joined the revolution (now under siege from the other European powers), first winning acclaim in 1793 in the siege of Toulon, recpaturing the port from Britain. He then led a remarkably successful campaign in Italy before conducting a fascinating campaign in Egypt which made him a national hero in France despite a mixed record. When he returned to Paris in 1800, another coup saw the latest regime overthrown and Napoleon manipulated the chaos to have himself created First Consul and later Emperor. Over the next decade, he oversaw extensive domestic reforms with his Napoleonic Code whilst simultaneously defeating successive coalitions of the great powers of Europe (the Ulm Campaign and Wagram against Austria, Austerlitz against Russia, Jena-Auerstedt against Prussia), marched into Madrid and in 1810 marrying Princess Marie-Louise of Austria, producing a son who was named King of Rome (the Pope having been sent packing!) At this point, Napoleon seemed unstoppable.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Wellington was born on 01/05/1769 – just a few months before his nemesis, Napoleon. Also like Napoleon, Wellington was born on an island rather than the mainland, in his case in Dublin, Ireland (which was, at this time, part of the United Kingdom). Wellington was taller than Napoleon at 5″9, with a long face and an aquiline nose (for which he was nicknamed Old Nosey!) Like Napoleon, he wore simple but recognisable clothes in battle – a black cocked hat, a dark tunic with white trousers and his famous boots that inspired the humble Wellington Boot (or welly). Rather than reserved in style, Wellington was noted for his discipline and organisation – respected by his men rather than loved, but his composure in the heat of battle provided confidence at critical moments.
While Napoleon enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame and glory, Wellington was something of a slow starter. His time at Eton was entirely unremarkable (he is thus very unlikely ever to have said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”) and his mother fretted that “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur”. His army career was going nowhere and his only apparent ability was in music, but he determined to change his ways after his proposal to Kitty Pakenham was rejected by her family. He burnt his violins and determined to make a success of his army career. It was in India that Wellington first made his name, playing a vital role in extending British rule (via the East India Company) from 1798-1805. He had been a sickly and shy young man but emerged from India physically robust and totally assured of himself. He was almost sent to America until being diverted to Portugal and Spain in what became known as the Peninsula Wars. Wellington secured Portugal in 1809 and slowly progressed into Spain, with 1812 seeing the capture of the fort of Badajoz and then a brilliant victory at Salamanca resulting in the liberation of Madrid. Napoleon had a worthy adversary.
Gerbhard Leberecht von Blucher
Blucher was the eldest of the three commanders – born on 16/12/1742, he was the oldest man at Waterloo at the ripe old age of 72. Like his companions, he was technically born in a foreign territory (Rostock in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) and initially fought for Sweden against Prussia until he was captured and switched sides. Blucher was most notable for his magnificent moustache and was often seen with a pipe in his mouth, but unlike Napoleon and Wellington showed little concern for his appearance. Instead, with his limited formal education and love of war, gambling and drinking, he had a much more natural rapport with his soldiers and became a very popular figure in Europe. While Napoleon and Wellington were acclaimed as strategists, Blucher’s style was much more direct, preferring to lead (and fight) from the front (he was nicknamed Marshal Forwards by the Russians for his customary war-cry “Vorwarts!”), launching into cavalry charges with little concern for how this might fit into the wider context of the battle. As Wellington remarked, “whenever there was any question of fighting, always ready and eager – if anything, too eager.”
Blucher joined the (Swedish) army at just 16 during the Seven Years War. Although a natural soldier, his career stalled under Frederick the Great in Prussia due to various excesses such as gambling, drinking, womanizing, engaging in (illegal) duels, trading in stolen horses and conducting the mock execution of a priest. After Frederick’s death in 1786, Blucher was quickly promoted and became a leading figure at court advocating war against France whilst Prussia remained a neutral country. Unfortunately, when war did come, it did not go well for Prussia or Blucher. He was present at the defeat at Auerstedt and his impatience proved costly when he decided to lead a cavalry attack without waiting for reinforcements. He provided an impressive rearguard action to cover the Prussian defeat but was captured by the French, resulting in a meeting with Napeolon in which he found himself rather charmed by his great enemy. He was soon released in a prisoner exchange but despaired at Prussia’s subjection, with much of its territory occupied. He slipped into alcoholism and paranoia, believing at one point that the French had bribed his servants to heat his floors so as to make him burn his feet!
Napoleon’s First Defeat
While Napoleon’s position in 1810 seemed strong, he was in fact dangerously close to overstretching himself. This danger became a stark reality when he invaded Russia in 1812. Having raised a huge army of c. 450,000 men (most of whom were foreign born) he hoped for a quick victory that forced Russia to terms. Instead, the Russians avoided the fight, dragging Napoleon deeper and deeper into the country, stretching the supply lines to the limit as winter approached. After a brutal battle at Borodino, France occupied Moscow but were forced to retreat in a horrific winter, resulting in only 40,000 men making it back.
Heartened by Napoleon’s misfortune, a sixth coalition of the major powers was formed, the most cohesive and organised yet established. Wellington led his troops through the mountains, winning a decisive victory against the French at Vitoria before pushing into southern France. Meanwhile, the other European allies (including some forces led by Blucher) defeated Napoleon at Leipzig in the biggest battle of the period (over 600,000 soldiers took part across two days) and gradually forced him back into France. Napoleon won successive victories in France during February 1814 but Paris surrendered in March, the army leaders turned against him and he was forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba. Finally, the menace of Europe was defeated, but the victory would prove short-lived. Elba proved to be an incredibly bad choice for containing Napoleon, particularly as he was provided with a small army and a navy! While the allied leaders were distracted at the Congress of Vienna, in February 1815 Napoleon sailed to France, won back the support of the army and marched back into Paris.
To hear our full discussion about Napoleon’s escape from Elba, have a listen to the 5 minute preview below:
The Waterloo Campaign
The allied leaders at Vienna determined to remove Napoleon as soon as possible, with Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia each pledging to mobilise 150,000 men to stop him. Realistically, however, it would be Britain and Prussia who would face him Napoleon first. Together, they outnumbered Napoleon, with around 93,000 troops under Wellington and 117,000 under Blucher facing 124,000 for Napoleon. However, Napoleon’s army was larger than Wellington’s or Blucher’s alone and so his tactics were to keep the two armies apart, defeating one and then the other before the Austrians and the Russians could arrive.
Napoleon continued to hoodwink his rivals, leaving France much earlier than Wellington or Blucher expected. While their troops were spread across modern-day Belgium (unsure by what means he would attempt to travel), Napoleon marched towards Charleroi on 15 June, looking to capture a crossroads at Quatre Bras which would separate Wellington from Blucher (based on Ligny). When Wellington was told of Napoleon’s of advance at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels, he exclaimed “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God! He has gained twenty-four hours march on me!”
From this point on, however, Napoleon and the French made crucial mistakes and missed big opportunities to press home their advantage. Napoleon planned to focus his main effort on defeating Blucher at Ligny, leaving Marshal Ney to capture Quatre Bras and then coming down the road to outflank Blucher and deliver a knock-out blow. Instead, Ney delayed his attack when he had numerical advantage, fearing that Wellington was repeating his Peninsula tactics of concealing his troops. Consequently, when he finally did attack, Wellington had arrived in number and was able to fight out a stalemate. Napoleon was victorious at Ligny but failed to deliver a knock-out blow, not least because 20,000 men under Count d’Erlon spent the whole day marching between the two battles – initially sent to support Ney, Napoleon ordered him to come to Ligny only for Ney to demand him at Quatre Bras!
Still, on 17 June the allied position was still very tenuous. Blucher had fallen from his horse whilst leading a cavalry charge and had been trapped for hours until it was safe to retreat. The Prussians retreated north to Wavre and so Wellington (to maintain contact) retreated to a ridge at Mont St Jean, near the village of Waterloo. Had Napoleon launched early assaults on the two armies, perhaps they would have been broken (or at least permanently separated). Instead, he spent the morning writing letters and observing the Ligny battlefield and then sent 30,000 troops under Marshal Grouchy to pursue the Prussians far too late to prevent their retreat (or indeed to really know where they were!) Meanwhile, Blucher recovered from his wounds by liberally applying brandy (both to his wounds and to his stomach!) and against the advice of his chief of staff, sent a message to Wellington pledging that he would join him in the event of Napoleon attacking. Wellington now knew that when Napoleon attacked the following day, Blucher would come to his aid. Crucially, Napoleon did not.
The Battle of Waterloo
Wellington had chosen an excellent position, blocking the main road to Brussels. He was positioned on a ridge, concealing the bulk of his forces, whilst ahead of him the ridge was flanked by three farms garrisoned with troops and protected by walls – Hougoumont to the east, La Haye Sainte in the centre and Papelotte to the west. Napoleon would therefore have to attack uphill, unable to see the troops beyond the ridge and unable to engage in flanking manoeuvres without first capturing the farmsteads. This was made much more difficult by a night of torrential rain, making the ground muddy and difficult to traverse for troops and artillery. Despite this, Napoleon was confident before battle, convinced that Blucher could not possibly play a role and declaring that “this will be a picnic”.
Because of the rain, Napoleon delayed attacking until around 11:00 to 11:30, waiting for the ground to dry. This two hour delay was crucial as it gave Blucher and the Prussians more time to arrive to the battle. Napoleon’s plan was to launch a diversionary attack on Hougoumont in order to draw out Wellington’s reserves, before then launching a heavy artillery and infantry attack on his centre, which he hoped to capture and then split the army in two whilst capturing control of the road. Unfortunately, his brother, Jerome, decided to prove his worth by actually capturing Hougoumont, resulting in thousands and thousands of French troops being dragged in all day in an attempt to capture the farm. It nearly fell at 12:30 when a large Frenchman with an axe led 30 men inside, but thankfully the gates were closed and the invaders killed (save a young French drummer boy).
The first proper attack was led by d’Erlon (keen to make amends for his no-show at Ligny/Quatre Bras), with around 14K troops marching up the ridge at Wellington’s centre. Despite some dubious formations by d’Erlon, the attack threatened to overawe the British troops, which could have been a fatal early blow, but at the crucial moment the British cavalry led by Lord Uxbridge charged into d’Erlon’s lines and inflicted heavy casualties. Unfortunately, the British cavalry lacked the discipline to return to their lines and pursued the French troops until they themselves were charged by the French cavalry and also suffered heavy losses.
At about 16:00, Ney launched a cavalry attack at Wellington’s centre hoping to take advantage of what he thought was a mass of troops retreating. In fact, the retreating troops were wounded soldiers and his spur-of-the-moment attack (without sufficient infantry or artillery support) was a costly failure. Wave upon wave of French charges failed to break the ‘square’ formation of the British infantry, whereby two ranks of troops formed a wall of steel with their bayonets while behind them soldiers shot at the French. The British were well enough trained (and indeed led, with Wellington himself at times giving the orders) that they did not buckle and Ney was unable to make a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Blucher and the Prussians were making their way to the battle. Although Napoleon had effectively given them a two hour headstart by delaying his attack at Waterloo, the Prussians were also hampered by the mud. The route from Wavre was on winding and muddy country roads and a fire at a bakery in Wavre delayed their advance as they were unable to get passed until the fire was out for fear it would blow up their ammunition carriages! However, Blucher inspired his troops and from 15:00, the Prussians started to arrive at Waterloo. Napoleon was hoping that he would see Grouchy emerging instead, but he had rejected the pleas of his subordinates to head towards the sound of the French Grand Battery and instead followed his orders to the letter, pursuing the Prussians to Wavre where he fought a pointless battle against their rearguard. His 30,000 men and 96 guns would be sorely missed at Waterloo.
The situation was now looking rather perilous for Napoleon. The Prussians arrived in force from 16:30 and began a battle for the village of Plancenoit, situated near the French back lines and threatening the splitting of his forces. However, Wellington was yet to feel the benefit of the Prussians arriving and his centre was struggling under heavy attacks. At about 18:15, Ney succeeded in capturing the central farmstead of La Haye Sainte, allowing unrestricted attacks on Wellington’s centre. Ney made a call for reinforcements to launch a potential knock-out blow but Napoleon refused to send in the Imperial Guard (his elite veteran troops). This was, perhaps, a last missed opportunity, but in reality the French were involved in heavy fighting across the battlefield. Napoleon was forced to send in all 8 battalions of the Young Guard to relieve Plancenoit and then 2 battalions of the Old Guard to recapture it as growing Prussian forces fought back.
At this point, with the Prussians increasing in number, the sensible decision would have been for Napoleon to retreat, regroup and hope to link up with Grouchy and other French forces to fight another day. Instead, he gambled and sent in the rest of the Imperial Guard to break Wellington’s centre. Under heavy fire, they made it up the ridge but unknown to them there were various regiments hiding in the long grass for protection from artillery. When they marched close enough, Wellington gave the order “Up guards, ready!” and they launched a devastating volley of fire into the Guard and forcing their retreat. The sight of the previously invincible Imperial Guard in retreat was the final straw and the French fell into panic. Wellington, sensing the moment, muttered “Oh damn it! In for a penny, in for a pound!” before waving his hat three times to signal a general advance across the battlefield. Napoleon had been defeated for the last time.
Wellington and Blucher met and embraced at the appropriately named La Belle Alliance, an inn down the centre of the ridge. Blucher hoped that this would be the name of the battle but Wellington, aware that this would not trip easily off the English tongue, insisted on Waterloo. Blucher and the Prussians led the pursuit of Napoleon into Paris, where he abdicated almost a week later, leading to the restoration of Louis XVIII. Napoleon attempted to escape to America but found British ships blocking all the ports. Aware that the Prussians would probably have him executed, he surrendered to the British and hoped to live out his retirement as an English country gentleman but was instead sent into a second exile, this time on the remote island of Saint Helena. This time, he would not escape and the Napoleonic Wars were finally at an end.
However, they came at a great cost, with Waterloo a brutal and horrifying battle for those who were involved. The Prussians suffered casualties of around 7,000 compared to 17,000 for the Anglo-Allies and 41,000 for the French (around 65,000 in all). Soon after the battle, Belgian peasants looted the dead and wounded, taking their valuables which included their teeth (sold for years afterwards as “Waterloo Ivory” and highly valued as good quality replacement teeth). Wellington showed unusual emotion after the battle, having lost many of his friends and officers, and wrote afterwards that “I hope to God I have fought my last battle…I always say that, next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”
After Waterloo, Blucher spent some time sulking in Paris, grumpy that Napoleon was not to be exiled and the French not more severely punished. However, he was cheered by the crowds of London when he visited soon afterwards and when he died in 1819 at 76 years old, he was the most decorated soldier in Prussian-German history (Hindenburg would later equal him). Napoleon never escaped Saint Helena, which situated 2,500 miles from Brazil and 1,000 miles from Namibia is about as remote a place as he could have been placed. He spent his final days complaining about his shoddy accommodation and writing his memoirs, before dying of stomach cancer (despite rumours of poisoning) in 1821 at 51 years old. Initially he was buried on the island but in 1840 he was returned to France and given a state funeral and since 1861 has been buried under an elaborate tomb under the dome at Les Invalides. Blucher’s remains were less fortunate, being dug up by Soviet soldiers in 1945 and scattered, with his skull allegedly used as a football.
Wellington, however, had a rather more protracted career after Waterloo. In 1828, he became Prime Minister and oversaw Catholic Emancipation, liberalising draconian laws against Catholics in the UK. He became an unpopular figure for a time, particular when opposing the Great Reform Act of 1832 during which time his windows were smashed by protesters, leading to him putting up iron shutters and giving him the nickname The Iron Duke. However, he became an esteemed elder statesman in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign and when he died in 1852 (aged 83) he was given a state funeral and buried next to Lord Nelson (Britain’s naval hero of Trafalgar) in St Paul’s Cathedral.
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