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Belgien Reenactment der Schlacht von Waterloo
Image: DW/G. Matthes

Revisiting Waterloo

Volker Wagener / js
June 18, 2015

The definitive answer to the question of the European balance of power came at Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte lost and the consequences of his defeat were far-reaching.


As the saying goes, whoever experiences his, or her "Waterloo" cannot have failed more momentously. The fact that a tiny Belgian municipality south of Brussels is thus immortalized, has to do with the course of world history. In the early summer of 1815, Napoleon entered his last battle, at Waterloo. It would also be his final defeat. With it, the so-called Napoleonic Era came to an end, and thus became history.

For almost two decades, the diminutive Corsican kept Europe on the move. But in the end, it would be the 100 hours of battle that took place 200 years ago, from the 15th until the 18th of June, that would seal the political order of Europe.

Following the upheavals of the French Revolution, which resonated across the Continent and shattered the old social order - not just in France - after 1789, Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 seemingly turned back the hands of time. Restoration and the reestablishment of the old order defined the times. The main victors at Waterloo: The Anglo-Irishman Arthur Wellesley, better known as the 1st Duke of Wellington; and the Prussian Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Prince von Wahlstatt, nicknamed "Marshal Forward," each had a great deal to do with that.

Napoleon BonaparteImage: picture alliance/Imagno

Blücher "gets a drubbing"

At Waterloo, Napoleon was not the same man that he had been before his exile on Elba. No longer a young man, he was sickly and unusually tentative. By the time he returned to power as emperor he was beginning to show signs of wear. Yet, the people were fascinated with the former conquerer. And he himself yearned to once again go to battle against the other European powers, these, however, had become allies in the meantime.

Napoleon's tactic of defeating the allied Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies separately was essentially dictated by the sheer numerical superiority of his adversaries. Some 72,000 French soldiers faced twice as many British, Dutch and Prussian soldiers, not to mention the Austrian and Russian troops that were marching to join the fight against France from the east.

Military historians contend that it would have been possible for Napoleon to defeat the multinational coalition of armies one after the other. But - one important element was missing. Napoleon's flight from exile and his victorious march to Paris in just three weeks time were proof of the "petit corporal's" masterful ability to presciently and quickly make the right decisions. However, that ability left him at Waterloo, and Napoleon became a brooding procrastinator.

Gemälde Schlacht von Waterloo Sadler
The battle of Waterloo decided the balance of power in EuropeImage: gemeinfrei

On June 16, 1815, some 160,000 soldiers faced one another, with slightly more Prussians present than Frenchmen. Within seven hours, Napoleon, thanks mainly to his Old Guard, was able to force Blücher's army into retreat. The price of victory was nearly 10,000 French dead, and twice as many Prussians. Wellington commented on his allies' defeat the next day by noting that, "Blücher got a sound drubbing."

The Anglo-Irishman had, however, only narrowly escaped defeat himself. Just a few kilometers away from Ligny, where the Prussians had come up short against Napoleon, Wellington was face-to-face with a third of France's Army of the North, under the command of Marshal Michel Ney. Wellington was only able to hold his position at the important crossroads at Quatre-Bras because Ney failed to attack decisively.

First they were not pursued, and then they got away

Nevertheless, Napoleon was able to advance between the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies. But then, according to military expert Hans-Wilhelm Möser, who has studied the Battle of Waterloo extensively and written a book on the subject, he made two mistakes that decided the battle. In a recent interview with DW Möser said, "First he failed to have the Prussians that he had defeated at Ligny chased down." Not having pursued them, "He then had no idea where they were and what they were doing after that. He had to plan and act in the dark after that."

Portrait of Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of WellingtonImage: picture alliance/Heritage Images

"Then," according to Möser, "on the morning of June 17th, he let Wellington escape from Quatre-Bras, squandering his chance to defeat his adversaries one after the other, as had been his original battle plan." Thus, his fate was essentially sealed.

Then the Prussians arrived - late, but not too late. And "Marshal Forward" lived up to his name. If Napoleon's troops were already falling back across a wide front by late afternoon, Blücher's pursuit set off a wild retreat among the Frenchmen. The day was not yet over, but the battle had been decided. Only half of the Army of the North remained. Those who were not killed, were either injured, or had been taken prisoner. Napoleon had given the Prussians a second chance after Ligny, and tactically underestimated the British. His adversaries defeated him using his own former strengths.

Deutschland Gebhard Leberecht Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, "Marshal Forward'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The curse and blessing of the Congress of Vienna

One other thing had also gotten in Napoleon's way, the Congress of Vienna. The Corsican assumed that the conference of heads of state organizing the new political order of the European continent was over when he fled from Elba to the mainland. Not so. It is almost unimaginable - after millions have died in wars, the most powerful representatives of the Old Continent are meeting in Vienna to plan their confrontation with Napoleon Bonaparte, and then he attacks them again. As his opponents are still sitting with the Austrian Emperor, they decide to forge an alliance against the French parvenu. In this sense, Napoleon's escape from Elba is six months too early, and the emperor knows it.

For without the coincidental backdrop of this gathering of the big and powerful in Vienna, the alliance against the French adversary would never have been assembled so quickly - and European history after 1815 would most likely have been quite different. Thus, Waterloo marked the definitive end of French predominance over Europe and became a synonym for absolute defeat.

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