History: Battle of Waterloo

battle of waterloo history 101
Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

by Jirrine

Chances are that you have at least heard of the Battle of Waterloo. Personally, I knew that the battle was fought at Waterloo and that Napoleon was involved. I remained somewhat murky on the specifics though.. But, we are never too old to learn to today it is time to explore and find out a little more about one of the most decisive battles of the continent: the Battle of Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo was the final battle of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and was fought in what is now Belgium. In many aspects the Battle of Waterloo was decisive for the political and military situation in Europe: the outcome of Waterloo ended the hundreds of years that the English and French had battled one another. simultaneously it also meant the end of a strong French dominion of the European continent. The Battle took place on June 18, 1815 so it just celebrated its bicentennial. In the Battle Napoleon and his forces fought an alliance of British (lead by the Duke of Wellington) and Prussian forces. The French army was 73,000 strong against the Anglo alliance of 68,000. The Netherlands contributed 17,000 soldiers to the Anglo-Allies. Only one third of the Duke Wellington’s forces was actually British and most of those were not English but Irish, Scotish and Welsh.


With that many men fighting each other there were a lot casualties. On the French side about 25,ooo soldiers died and 15,000 went missing. The Anglo-Alies lost considerably less men: their losses (death or missing) were around 24,000 men. I say less, but the sheer number of lives lost is truely overwhelming. It is hard to imagine that one day of fighting prevented 64,000 people from returning home, leaving behind women and children, family and friends. Altough it was not the battle with the most casualties, it was the battle with the most casualties per square mile. With an excess of 150,000 soldiers and 60,000 horses on a field just 5 square miles the fighting was intense.

The story goes that the Battle was in part decided because of a reading error. Napoleon communicated with his officers through couriers and letters. Napolean wrote a note to Marshal Grouchy that the battle had engagee, which means the battle had begon. The officer, however, read gagne. Gagne means something very different namely won. Consequentely the vital reinforcements that Napoleon needed never arrived but spend their day at Wavre, about six miles from the battlesite. The Battle of Waterloo did not actually take place at Waterloo; rather it was about 2 miles from the town. The name of the Battle was made up by Duke Wellington and named after the place of his Headquarters. The French and Prussian commanders called the battle entirely different!

Battle of Waterloo french
Waterloo: The Battle of Le Haye Saint by Pamela Patrick White

The Battle of Waterloo meant the death of many but also turned out to be lucrative for many others. The day after the Battle the first sightseers were already arriving at the scene. Everything of value was scavanged: badges, swords, uniforms. The most lucrative business of all were also the most unexpected: locals carrying pliers began to remove the teeth of the thousands of dead soldiers. Human teeth were in high demand and the teeth were sold to dentists who crafted them into dentures for the rich. The dentures were even advertised as Waterloo Teeth! Can you imagine having the actual teeth of a dead soldier in your mouth? It gives me the creeps just thinking about it!

On the site of the Battle a special monument was erected after the battle to commemorate the leg that Lord Uxbridge shattered during the fighting. It was later amputated and buried. When Lord Uxbridge died 39 years later, his leg was exhumed and buried with the rest of his body. The Duke of Wellington was considerably more lucky: his victory awarded him 200,000 pounds equivalent to 15 million pounds in today’s currency.

Battle of Waterloo Napoleon portrait
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuilleries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Although the battle meant the end of Napoleon’s reign, he did not die during the battle. Napoleon had not really forseen a defeat: when the Prussian soldiers found the imperial carriage they found post-dated messages stating the victory of Napoleon addressed to the people of Belgium. Napoleon was so surprised that he even attempted suicide three days after the defeat by consuming a vial of poison, one he always caried with him in case of capture. He was found extremely sick and was given an antidote. He did die six years later of stomach cancer… The poison might have done harm after all.  After his defeat Napoleon abdicated all of his imperial powers and he was banished to the island of St. Helena. The site had been carefully chosen by the British government: it was 5,000 miles from Europe and 1,800 miles from the coast of South America.

On the site of the Battle of Waterloo there is still a lot to see for present-day visitors. Especially this year with the 200 years anniversary of the Battle there are many events, among them re-enactments of key moments during the Battle. Unfortunately most of them have already been but if you plan on visiting the site in the future google to see if they have any upcoming events!

Battle of Waterloo reactment
Battle of Waterloo Re-enactment

You can click any of the pictures to make them larger. The all have a lot of detail and the current size does not do them justice!



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