The Battle of Waterloo: What happened and why is it still significant today?

By Louise Quick
14 June 19

Next week marks 204 years since Napoleon and Wellington faced off at the Battle of Waterloo, but what was this conflict all about, what happened, and is it worth remembering today?

Next Tuesday it will be 204 years since the legendary Battle of Waterloo raged in Europe, fought by two of the continent’s most iconic military leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington.

Plus, this year is the 250th anniversary of both these leaders’ births. So what better time to delve into the essential facts of this most historical battle?

Where and when was the Battle of Waterloo fought?
The bloody conflict was fought in the muddle fields of modern-day Belgium, south of Brussels and close to a village called Waterloo, on 18 June 1815.

Who was fighting?

First up: Napoleon Bonaparte. The determined French Emperor was back from exile and backed by a mighty army of approximately 72,000 soldiers.

In the opposite corner was Arthur Wellesley, aka the Duke of Wellington. His army of British, Dutch, and Belgian troops reached around 68,000, but allegedly consisted of either aged, experienced veterans or younger soldiers who had rarely seen combat. 

On the same side was Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The Prussian military leader’s army was still reeling from defeat against Napoleon at the Battle of Ligny two days before. 

How did the Battle of Waterloo start?
In June 1815, intent on expanding his empire Napoleon marched his army into Belgium, where both the British-Allied forces and Prussians were based, prepared the prevent the French emperor’s plans.

Combined, Wellington’s and Blücher’s forces outnumbered Napoleon’s army and therefore would prove difficult to defeat.

Not to be deterred, Napoleon planned to divide and conquer – to take on each army separately. His plan in the early morning of 18 June 1815 was to defeat Wellington, before taking on Blücher in a separate battle. 

So, what happened?
Poised and ready in the fields outside Waterloo, the French troops came across one small issue Napoleon had not planned for: the rain.

The torrential downpour the night before had left the ground sodden, meaning it would be tough for soldiers to navigate and even tougher to manoeuvre their guns and equipment.

Napoleon had a choice to make. He decided to wait for the ground to dry out before starting the charge against Wellington’s army at about 11am.

This delay ultimately caused his downfall.

Hours of bloody fighting followed. The French army outnumbered the British-Allied forces, approximately 72,000 to 68,000. Wellington’s forces were gallantly defending the bases they had made in nearby chateaux and farms, but had taken some serious hits and reinforcements were needed.

‘Battle of Waterloo 1815’ by William Sadler

Who won the battle?
Fortunately, reinforcements were on their way. Napoleon’s delay had given Blücher’s troops enough time to reach the battle.

Attacking Napoleon’s army from the east, the French emperor was now both outnumbered and forced to fight battles on two fronts, splitting his resources and men.

The soldiers fought on for hours until, finally, the Prussian army united with their fellow British-Allied troops. Together their combined power pushed Napoleon’s forces back to defeat.

What was the damage? 
Tens of thousands of men died. While numbers vary, most estimates place the French casualties at 33,000, (including deaths, those wounded, and those imprisoned), and the combined casualties of the British-Allied and Prussian forces at around 22,000.

Figuring out the effects of nationalism on Britain’s empire in ‘How did Britain lose her vast empire so quickly in the 20th Century?’

What happened to Napoleon?
Napoleon didn’t die on the battlefield. Instead, he fled to Paris where he made a speedy abdication as Emperor before being intercepted trying to escape to the US. He was exiled, again, this time to the island of St. Helena off of Africa’ west coast, where he died in 1821.

Why is the Battle of Waterloo important?
The Battle of Waterloo was the final blow not only to the Napoleonic Wars, but decades of war that had raged between French and European forces.

It is remembered as the grand finale, bringing an end to an era of conflict, stemming back to the fall out of the French Revolution.

What was the Battle of Waterloo not?
It is not the Peterloo Massacre. Find out more about that 19th-century protest on our post about how Britain changed forever under Queen Victoria.

What do you think? Are there other important facts from the Battle of Waterloo that we’ve missed? We’d love to know what you so drop your thoughts in the comment box or tweet us at @historybombs

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Further Reading:

Featured image: ‘Scotland Forever!’ by Lady Elizabeth Butler, 1881.