Go to content

Main menu:


The Battle of Waterloo


The Battle of Waterloo occupies a virtually unique place in the history of Britain and in the imagination of those interested in military history. It was a true turning point in history, in military technology, and marked, together with the Battle of Trafalgar, the start of Britain’s stability and international significance for the next hundred years.

By 1815 Britain and France had been at war since 1793 with only two brief pauses. The first of these was the peace of Amiens in 1802-3. The second started with Napoleon’s defeat and exile to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean in 1814. The fact that he was able to return from Elba, win over all the troops and commanders sent to capture him, and strike North from Paris within about three months, was eloquent witness to his charisma and genius.
When Napoleon returned from exile, the nations of Europe declared war against him personally and agreed to raise a number of armies. Napoleon realised he needed a quick victory to consolidate his position. Louis XVIII, who had been restored to the French throne only the previous year was in Belgium as was the Duke of Wellington with a British and allied army. There was a Prussian army to the east. Napoleon reasoned that, if he struck at those armies before they could combine and march on Paris, he could win some time.
The Duke of Wellington heard of the French advance on the 15th June but was slow reacting. He commanded his forces to concentrate in their assembly areas and eventually sent those who were available earliest to march south to secure the crossroads of Quatre-Bras which was held by a Netherlands force. One road from here linked with the Prussian army. The French split their force, one body engaged the British at Quatre-Bras, the other larger part attacked and defeated the Prussian army at the Battle of Ligny. The British had to withdraw because of the Prussian defeat.
The Duke of Wellington decided he would stand and fight the French at a ridgeline near the village of Waterloo as long as the Prussians could give him some support. He received assurance from Marshall Blucher that reassured him that support would come. Although the Prussians had been defeated one Prussian corps had not been engaged in the battle.

The Duke of Wellington had previously noted the ridgeline at Waterloo as a possible place to give battle. It suited the tactics he had used previously to defeat the French as it offered a reverse slope where his soldiers could be drawn up in relative safety from French cannon fire. That concealment also hid his dispositions from the French.
The British and allied army contained a wide variety of different nationalities. Indeed, some of the soldiers engaged against the French had been on the French side only 12 months earlier. Many of the most experienced British battalions were either still in southern France or in America (the War of 1812 against the Americans was a nasty little sideshow which ended in 1814 but diverted British attention from Europe). Only about 25% of Wellington’s army were British. About the same again experienced troops of the King’s German Legion and Brunswick. The rest were a mixture of regular and militia units from various German states Belgium and the Netherlands. As a result there were soldiers in blue uniforms on both sides.

Military technology

The weapons used at Waterloo were not new. The Brown Bess musket used by the British had been in service for over 60 years. It and the muskets used by all the troops were very similar to weapons that had been used nearly 300 years earlier. Some soldiers were equipped with rifles which were a hint of what was to come but were still very crude.
The main innovation of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was the mass infantry column. This originated by necessity in revolutionary France as a result of a large number of men being available but being untrained and poorly equipped. Napoleon perfected this weapon and, except against British and British trained troops, it had reigned supreme in Europe for 20 years.

Back to content | Back to main menu