Waterloo (United States)

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After eleven months of exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France in March 1815 and restored his empire. Meeting in Vienna to discuss the postwar reorganization of Europe, the Allies who had vanquished Napoleon one year earlier wasted no time. Renewing their alliance to form the Seventh Coalition, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria planned to have armies totaling almost 1 million men invade France by July. After Napoleon failed to convince the allies of his peaceful intentions, he devised a strategy of knocking one or more of the belligerents out of the war before they could combine their forces and overwhelm him.

Napoleon's return did not catch the allies wholly unprepared. Allied observation corps in Belgium steadily received reinforcements during the spring of 1815 to create an Anglo-Dutch army of 90,000 men under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and the Royal Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine: 120,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Napoleon decided to strike these allied forces with his own 125,000-man Army of the North. After smashing through the Prussian forward posts on 14 and 15 June, the emperor inflicted a bruising defeat on Blücher at Ligny on the 16th with the right wing of the French army. On the same day, the left wing, under the command of Marshal Michel Ney, encountered Wellington's army at Quatre Bras. The resulting stalemate allowed Wellington to withdraw to Waterloo. The confusion of the French I Corps, which marched back and forth between Ligny and Quatre Bras without participating in either battle, also allowed the Prussian army to retreat unhindered north to Wavre, fifteen miles east of Waterloo. A series of blunders on the rainy day of 17 June placed the French at a decided disadvantage. Napoleon incorrectly assumed that the Prussians had retreated eastward along their line of communications, and assigned 33,000 men under the command of Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to drive Blücher out of Belgium. He did not release the pursuit until 11:00 a.m. Then Grouchy took the wrong direction and failed to close the road between Waterloo and Wavre.

After receiving Blücher's promise of support, Wellington took up a defensive position south of Waterloo with 68,000 men and awaited Napoleon and his 72,000 men on 18 June. While mud prevented Napoleon from launching his attack until 11:30 a.m., the Prussian IV Corps commenced its march to Waterloo at 4:30 a.m. followed by II and I Corps—a total of 70,000 men. Blücher's III Corps remained at Wavre as rear guard and was eventually attacked by Grouchy, but the combat had no influence on the monumental events at Waterloo.

Napoleon opened the attack with a spirited assault by his II Corps on the entrenched farm of Hougoumont on Wellington's right wing. The garrison held, and two hours later, at 1:30 p.m., the French I Corps tested Wellington's left and eventually had to fall back. The British then countered with a cavalry charge that ground to a halt before massed French artillery. Shortly thereafter Napoleon noticed troops moving on his extreme right; by 2:00 p.m. reports confirmed the approach of Blücher's Prussians. While Napoleon shifted his reserves to meet the new threat on his right, Ney squandered the French cavalry in massed, unsupported charges between 3:45 and 5:00 p.m. that failed to break the British infantry squares in Wellington's center. Just as the survivors of Ney's charges limped back to the French line, Blücher's IV Corps attacked the French right. As more Prussian units arrived, Blücher extended his front to threaten Napoleon's line of retreat. While Napoleon oversaw the struggle against the Prussians around the village of Plancenoit, Ney managed to capture the fortified farm of La Haie Sainte around 6:00 p.m. With Wellington's center almost bled dry, Ney called for reinforcements, but all available units had to be committed against the Prussians. Napoleon eventually managed to shift his Imperial Guard from Plancenoit to his center, but the opportunity to destroy Wellington had passed. At 7:30 p.m., Napoleon ordered eight battalions of the guard to spearhead one final assault against Wellington's center. Wellington brought up his last reserves, which repulsed the attacking guard. Seeing the elite guardsmen routed and realizing that Grouchy would not arrive in time, the French army began fleeing the battlefield around 8:30 p.m. Only two battalions of the Old Guard maintained order to cover Napoleon's exit from the battlefield. French losses amounted to 33,000 men and 220 guns, while the Allied armies sustained 22,000 casualties.

The battle of Waterloo represents the climax of Napoleon's way of war. During the latter years of his reign, he had experienced the consequences of failing to develop an adequate general staff system to direct the operations of multiple armies in theaters as far apart as Portugal and Russia. His reluctance to nurture his subordinates in the art of strategy and to create advanced military schools for the training of officers inhibited the French army's ability to produce commanders who could conduct independent operations. Just as Napoleon exited the stage of history following the battle of Waterloo, so too ended the age when operations and battle could be directed solely by the genius of one man.

See alsoFrench Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Hundred Days; Napoleon; Wellington, Duke of (Arthur Wellesley).


Primary Sources

Siborne, William. History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815. London, 1844.

Secondary Sources

Bowden, Scott. Armies at Waterloo. Arlington, Tex., 1983.

Chandler, David. Waterloo: The Hundred Days. London, 1980.

Michael V. Leggiere

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Waterloo ★★ 1971 (G)

Massive chronicle of Napoleon's European conquests and eventual defeat at the hands of Wellington. Filmed on location in Italy and the Ukraine, it bombed due largely to Steiger's bizarre rendition of Napoleon. 122m/C VHS . IT RU Rod Steiger, Orson Welles, Virginia McKenna, Michael Wilding, Donal Donnelly, Christopher Plummer, Jack Hawkins, Dan O'Herlihy, Terence Alexander, Rupert Davies, Ivo Garrani, Gianni “John” Garko, Ian Ogilvy, Andrea Checchi, Jean Louis, Willoughby Gray, John Savident, Adrian Brine, Jeffrey Wickham, Sergei Zakariadze, Richard Heffer, Aldo Cecconi, Peter Davies, Eugene Samoilov; D: Sergei Bondarchuk; W: Sergei Bondarchuk, H.A.L. Craig, Vittorio Bonicelli; C: Armando Nannuzzi; M: Nino Rota.

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Waterloo, city (1990 pop. 66,467), seat of Black Hawk co., NE Iowa, on the Cedar River; inc. 1868. Originally a center for sawmills and flour mills, Waterloo is a trade and industrial center in a farm and livestock area. The city's chief industries are meatpacking, soybean processing, and the manufacture of farm machinery, plastics, fabricated metal products, transportation equipment, and apparel. The National Dairy Cattle Congress is held there each September. A 10-acre (4-hectare) replica of the island where the protagonist of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked has been built in the Cedar River at Waterloo.

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Wa·ter·loo / ˌwôtərˈloō; ˌwä-; ˈwôtərˌloō; ˈwä-/ 1. an industrial and commercial city in northeastern Iowa; pop. 68,747. 2. see Austin1 sense 2.