The battle depicted in a painting by Robinson, circa 1820, overlaid on a photo of the battlefield as it is today.
When news reached the Congress at Vienna that Napoléon had escaped from the island of Elba in March 1815 where he had been exiled, he was declared an outlaw by the allies, who decided to mass their forces and rid Europe from him for once and for all.
The Waterloo Campaign is also known as ‘The Hundred Days’, because that is allegedly the number of days from when Napoléon escaped from Elba, to his defeat at Waterloo.
Napoléon knowing the allies would plan to defeat him, decided to take the offensive and destroy the two armies closest to him before they could unite. They were the Anglo-Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Army under Marshal Baron von Blücher.
Napoléon’s newly formed Army de Nord crossed into Belgium in the early hours of the 15th of June, surprising the Anglo–Allied and Prussian forces, which were spread out and had yet to join forces. Napoléon planned to exploit this situation, so having crossed the River Sambre at Charleroi, he divided his forces into two, with the idea of defeating one army, before turning on the other. Napoléon sent Marshal Grouchy towards Fleurus to attack the Prussians and Marshal Ney up the Brussels road.
He followed Grouchy with his reserves and once they met up, they attacked Blücher and Prussian Army on the 16th of June at Ligny. The Prussians put up a brave fight, but were defeated and had to retreat. Napoléon thought that the Blücher would head eastward towards Prussia and sent Grouchy after him. However, Blücher had promised Wellington his support, so instead headed northwards towards Wavre, where they would then ultimately join forces at Waterloo on the 18th of June.
In the meantime Ney had reached the crossroads at Quatra Bras on the 15th of June, where he was stopped by a small force commanded by the 23 year old Prince of Orange. Ney decided to delay the attack until the 16th of June, which unwittingly gave Wellington just enough time to muster his forces and drive the French back.
Wellington’s luck didn’t stop there. Due to bad command and communications, Count d’Erlon’s 1 Corp spent the 16th of June marching back and forth between Quatra Bras and Ligny without participating in either battle. If he had, his forces could have tipped the balance in Napoléon’s favour. Unfortunately because Blücher had lost at Ligny and not wanting to be out flanked, Wellington decided on the 17th of June to withdraw his forces back to the ridge at Mont Saint Jeane, some 5 km south of Waterloo, which was the last defensive position before Brussels.
On the Sunday the 18th of June 1815, Napoléon faced Wellington for the first time in his career and at about 11.30 a.m. the opening shots of the Battle of Waterloo were fired during the attack on Wellington’s right wing at the Château Farm of Hougoumont, by Napoléon’s younger brother, Prince Jérome.
Napoléon had 71,900 men on the field made up of 49,000 Infantry, 15,700 Cavalry and 7,200 Artillery with 246 guns. He had a further 33,000 and 80 guns under Grouchy who was chasing the Prussians to the east at Warve.
Wellington’s Anglo–Allied force had 66,600 men on the field made up of 49,000 Infantry, 12,000 Cavalry and 7,200 Artillery with 156 guns. He had a further 17,000 and 30 guns at Hall on his western flank to protect his lines of communications.
Blücher had 4 Corps made up of Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery, a total of 117,000 men and 312 guns and no resrves. Of the 58,000 Prussians in 3 Corps that marched to Waterloo, only 28,000 managed to engaged the enemy during the battle on 18th of June.