Bravery and tragedy: Reflections on the Battle of Waterloo

Ahead of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Martyn Bennett, Professor of Early Modern History at the School of Arts and Humanities, reflects on a bloody battle which finally brought an end to a series of wars.

Waterloo had been a bloody battle fought in a confined space and the casualties on all three sides had been very high.

Professor Martyn Bennett

Ahead of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Martyn Bennett, Professor of Early Modern History, School of Arts and Humanities, reflects on a bloody battle which finally brought an end to a series of wars.

On Sunday, 18 June 1815, three armies and many more nations of Europe clashed in one of the world's bloodiest battles.

Napoleon's return from exile on the small island of Elba and his acclamation by the French people who once again took him as their emperor, rejecting the imposition of the Bourbon monarchy forced upon them in 1814, set France against the rest of Europe. The Ancien Regime nations of Europe and their moribund monarchies had however, declared war, not on the French but on their choice of leader.

Armies which had been on the point of disbanding following the end of war the previous year turned around and headed again for the French borders.

Napoleon struck first, hoping that defeating the Prussian army under Field Marshal Blucher, and an allied force comprising troops from Britain, several German states and the new kingdom of Holland-Belgium under Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, would force the allies to think again and perhaps cause a general election in Great Britain. His attack drove a wedge between Wellington and Blucher on 16 - 17 June, but on the following day they reunited to crush him between them.

Napoleon's strategy was simple but deadly, although flawed as it was grounded in his erroneous confidence that the Prussians had been driven eastwards and would be unable to unite with Wellington.

A series of attacks throughout the day began to slowly and steadily dislodge Wellington's army from its brilliantly chosen position on a ridge south of the town of Waterloo. However, Prussian forces had eluded their pursuers and began to arrive on the battlefield in the mid-afternoon and by early evening were attacking the rear of Napoleon's army.

A final assault, following the near breaking of Wellington's centre, faltered at the same time as the mass of the French army realised that the Prussians were behind them. The ensuing rout saw the French pushed back to France and Napoleon, to save the country from the devastation of continued war, abdicated.

Waterloo had been a bloody battle fought in a confined space and the casualties on all three sides had been very high. Approximately 48,000 men died during the day amid great bravery and appalling tragedy on all sides. The war did continue for a few months as parts of Napoleon's army defied the Austrian invaders, often against impossible odds at Huningue to defend La Patrie, if not the memory of the empire.

Even so, Waterloo brought the end of a series of wars that had begun in 1793 in the wake of the French Revolution and the offer by the revolutionaries to help any people who wanted to over throw their out-dated monarchies. The war became one of conquest and reconquest as the modernising French state, under its revolutionary governments and then under Napoleon from 1799, challenged and was challenged in its turn by the continental empires.

Only when the nations of Europe united fully after Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia were they able to defeat the French Empire between 1813 and 1815. This united Europe, with a single - if limited goal - and defeated Napoleon and brought down his empire in a victory which created a peace that lasted for thirty-eight years.

Professor Martyn Bennett
Professor of Early Modern History
School of Arts and Humanities

Bravery and tragedy: Reflections on the Battle of Waterloo

Published on 12 June 2015
  • Category: Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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