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First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign


The Waterloo Campaign, 1815, continued

Finally, at 11:30, Napoleon’s artillery opened fire. His battle plan was simple. Wellington’s men occupied the outlying farm buildings on both flanks, and the crest of a ridge in the center near the village of Waterloo. To break them, Napoleon ordered no elaborate maneuvers. He would stake everything on a massive frontal attack.

CONNELLY: He meant to attack Wellington first, and the quicker the better. He thought Wellington would run for his ships. Then he would turn around and blast Bluecher.

Shortly after midday, Napoleon ordered a barrage of his most powerful cannon — seventy-four guns steadily lobbed cannon balls at Wellington’s center. But Wellington had ordered his soldiers to take cover behind the crest of the ridge on which they stood, beyond the reach of the French guns.

ELTING: Napoleon motto was "Never attack a man in a prepared position." But here, he has no choice. He's got to get Wellington out.

Napoleon’s soldiers charged. The British counterattacked, driving the French back in confusion.

KERATRAUNT: The English were in a good position on the ridge, and in spite of that, Napoleon launched a frontal assault. This was perhaps not suicide, but it led to the loss of a lot of soldiers.

GARNIER: You have the impression that he is issuing orders hoping for a miracle. He was living in a dream.

While his infantry regrouped, more bad news reached Napoleon. Advance elements of the Prussian army were beginning to reach the battlefield. Napoleon would have to break Wellington’s center at once. The French cavalry charged on the order of Marshal Michel Ney, known as "the bravest of the brave." Convinced that the British line was weakening, he led his cavalry forward. The British formed square and waited. With reckless abandon, Ney led charge after charge. Napoleon was losing control of the battlefield.

CONNELLY: They were just mowing them down. Sergeants went down and ranks went down. Ney really thought if he could just [charge] one more time he would break through. "Just one more time will do it," you know, and they followed him.

HORNE: They nearly broke through the British squares, very, very close indeed, but Ney charged without the infantry behind him.

The French cavalry was destroyed - but the English center appeared on the verge of collapse. Desperate, Wellington rode through the smoke and carnage, refusing to order retreat. One officer heard him say: "Night or the Prussians must come."

HORNE: Every hour, every minute almost was of paramount importance at Waterloo.

The sun hung low in the sky, glowing blood-red through the trees and smoke. It was then that Napoleon saw them: Prussians soldiers emerging from the smoke, still in the far-distance.

HORNE: One of the Napoleon's aides notices that the hills to the right seems to have gone dark and that the dark was the black uniformed Prussians.

HORWARD: He sees dust over here on his right flank and he knows the Prussians are coming. Now what he can do is he can disengage, he can pull back. Or he can gamble and try and defeat the British before the Prussians arrive. He decides, "I can beat them."

He called for the Imperial Guard, the most feared of all his soldiers. Throughout the fighting he had held them in reserve. Now he sent them forward.

HORNE: The dreaded Guard… very fearsome body. They never, never retreated. This is sort of the last chance. It was total confusion… fog and the smoke of cannon fire. And these terrifying-looking automatons coming straight at you fifty yards away.

They were just forty paces away when the Duke gave the order to fire. In less than a minute, four-hundred Frenchmen fell. Still the Guard came on.

HORNE: They were absolutely magnificent. He had nearly broken through the British line, but it was too late. The first time in the whole history of the Napoleonic wars the Guard was seen to falter and then eventually fall back, shouting "Sauve qui peut." "Every man for himself." And then the word ran through the army, "La Guarde recule," "The guard is retreating."

Wellington snapped shut his telescope, took off his hat, and waved it. "No cheering, my lads," he said. "Forward and complete your victory." As the Guard fell back, panic spread through the ranks of Napoleon's army. And then disaster was upon them: the Prussians were in the field.

HORNE: The Prussians really were the last drop of water that tipped the bucket over. Napoleon had to draw forces from his center to deal with Bleucher. Bleucher won the battle. If Bleucher hadn’t been there, I don’t think Wellington would have made it.

"A damned nice thing," Wellington said later, "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life." The battle had lasted less than twelve hours — a single Sunday afternoon. In a field bloody with the wounded and the dead, Napoleon tried in vain to rally his men, then turned his back on the catastrophe, and escaped.

KERATRAUNT: He began the battle too late, he gave orders that weren’t clear, but in reality he lost the battle of Waterloo because he didn’t believe he could win it, because he didn’t believe he could win the campaign. Waterloo could have been won, but the war would have been lost anyway.

With all of Europe against him, Napoleon saw the futility of going on. As allied armies closed in around him, he let events run their course. He was a desperate man, totally confused.

On June 22, 1815 — four days after the Battle of Waterloo — he abdicated his throne for the second time. With no hope of escape, he put himself at the mercy of Great Britain. This time, they would take no chances; they exiled Napoleon to the remote island of St. Helena, thousands of miles from France. He would never hold power again.

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