The Dark Fortress

200 years ago today — the battle of Waterloo

18 June 2015 | 7th Edition

Marshal Ney, the bravest of the brave.
Marshal Ney (bare-headed with drawn sword) leading the French Imperial Guard cavalry reserve against allied infantry squares. From Louis Dumoulin's Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo.
Photograph by Mallinus.

June the 18th 1815 saw the dramatic culmination of what we now call the 100 days campaign. The final huzzah of Napoleon and the first French Empire. But at a great cost.

As a young wargamer back in the mid 1970s, the Napoleonic period was all the rage. Airfix had cheap and plentifull 1/72 scale Napoleonic figures to game with. While for those with deeper pockets, Minifigs and Hinchcliffe, amongst others, produced excellent Napoleonic white metal figure ranges.

Whose imagination hasn't been caught by the desperate defences of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte farm, the massed charges of Franch cavalry against the allied infantry squares, the charge of the British heavy cavalry, including the Scotts Greys (and their capture of a French eagle). Perhaps most poignantly, the advance of the Middle ond Old Guard regiments and their last stand at La Belle Alliance in a gamble by Napoleon to break the allied centre while his right wing were heroically defending and ultimately failing, in and around the village of Plancenoit to hold off the assaults of Blücher's Prussians now arriving late in the day in great force.

Happy wargamig days.

It was an amazing action. Marked not so much by who had died but by who had survived. The butchers bill was high costing Wellington's Army of the Low Countries around 15,000 dead or wounded and Blücher's some 6,000. Napoleon's losses were 24,000 killed or wounded and included 6,000 to 7,000 captured in that Belgian field, with an additional 15,000 deserting subsequent to the battle and over the following days. It was one of the bloodiest actions of the Napoleonic wars. And that is not counting those who fought in the previous three days' smaller actions at Gilly, Quatre-Bras and Ligny.

But it didn't end there. Marshal Grouchy with 33,000 men (the 3rd and 6th corps that had not seen action at Waterloo as they were too far away) fought actions against the Prussians as late as the 20th.

The result after the dust had settled? Napoleon, tired and disheartened, finally signed his abdication on the 24th June. The allies marched on Paris and Napoleon was eventually captured by the Royal Navy while trying to escape by sea. He was subsequently exiled and the Bourbon monarchy restored in France. And for the victorious major allied powers: Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia, the chance to carve and create a new Europe that enjoyed forty years of relative peace until the Crimean War. Interestingly, it also paved the way for Prussia and subsequently a unified German nation, to become the dominant force in Europe.

So here's to all the nations of Europe whose armies and citizens fought that day 200 years ago. It is a day that will live forever.