10 Fascinating Facts About the Battle of Waterloo


A clash of the greatest generals of their
age. The end of the Napoleonic Era. The last stand for the gravedigger of the
revolution. The greatest triumph of the Duke of Wellington. There are many ways to summarize the Battle
of Waterloo that play up its epic scope and seemingly decisive place in history. However, while most history lessons skim the
surface of this campaign between about 125,000 French soldiers and 220,000 Allied soldiers,
the truth was that it was a more fascinating, grim, and bizarre battle than most people
imagine or than most pieces of pop culture will depict. Let’s go exploring the historically neglected
aspects, unseemly details, and bewildering head-spaces of fateful day of June 18, 1815. 10. The Preliminary Battles Waterloo is the battle that became a household
name, but two days earlier on June 16, 1815 the stage was set by two battles at the towns
of Ligny and Quatre Bras. At Ligny, Napoleon commanded the French Army
against the Prussians under Field Marshal Gebhard Blucher and the British/Dutch Army
at the strategic Quatre Bras crossroads. At Ligny, the battle was especially vicious. The town of Ligny itself was devastated by
fire as troops fought building to building. While Napoleon was unable to inflict complete
destruction on the Prussian Army, he still left them so thoroughly beaten that Blucher
was trampled by horses in the process. The Prussians suffered roughly 16,000 casualties
while the French suffered about 12,000, but the Prussians were left in such disarray that
roughly a further 8,000 deserted. Quatre Bras became Field Marshal Ney holding
off Wellington’s army as the Prussians were dealt with. The Allies had been tricked by a feint towards
Mons near coastline and bad intelligence fed to their spies, which had convinced Wellington
that the French were going to try to cut his army off from the sea. As a result, the Allies were only able to
bring a fraction of their strength to bear against Ney as they attempted to correct for
this blunder and join the Prussians. It still became an overwhelming force against
the French, and though Ney held Wellington off for the day the French were still driven
from the field at a cost of about 4,000 casualties to both sides. Wellington was able to march for the defensibly
favorable hills of Mont. St. Jean. 9. Napoleon’s Crude Strategy Few generals understood the need for finesse
and cleverness of tactics like Napoleon Bonaparte. One of his sayings was “never attack a man
in a prepared position.” Yet during his great confrontation with Wellington
at Waterloo, Napoleon ordered frontal attacks at the British Army. That gave the British the ability to conceal
themselves along the crest of a hill while a flanking attack would have deprived them
of that cover. Frontal attacks usually depend on overwhelming
strength to break enemy formations, but Napoleon’s army was only slightly larger than Wellington’s
(roughly 72,000 to 68,000.) Indeed, just two days before, one of the keys
to Napoleon’s victory at Ligny had been a dramatic flanking attack. Frontal attacks should have been one of the
last things on his mind. It has been asserted that if Napoleon had
pursued the Prussians properly after winning at Ligny it would have assured his strategic
victory. After all, Wellington was in no position to
pursue Napoleon after Quatre Bras and Blucher’s army was too badly mauled and scattered to
put up much of a stand. Indeed, it took two attempted rallying points
for the Prussian army to start coming together. If Blucher’s army was out of commission,
Napoleon could have brought overwhelming strength to bear against Wellington since he wouldn’t
have needed to dispatch Grouchy’s 30,000 as he did in real life. But then, it’s easy to be a Monday Morning
Quarterback. 8. Rain that Won the Day Whatever strategy Napoleon had adopted in
dealing with his enemy armies, there would have been the complicating factor of rain
on June 17, 1815. This more than anything else led to Napoleon’s
defeat. It caused him to begin his attacks on the
British army at a relatively late 11:30 in the morning and gave the Prussian army vital
time to arrive on Napoleon’s right flank and ultimately drive them from the field. It also gave the British a significant artillery
advantage. The French relied heavily on solid cannon
balls or explosive rounds, which tended to get embedded deeper in the soft mud and thus
have their effectiveness dampened. Meanwhile the British relied heavily on Henry
Shrapnel’s canister fire, as they had for much of the Peninsular Campaign from 1809
to 1814. Since it effectively turned their cannons
into shotguns, the mud had no effect on their fire. 7. Royal Scots Greys Awkward Charge Late in the battle, the Highland infantry
regiments in the British center of the line were wavering and seemingly on the verge of
collapse, and with the British right already close to breaking it would have spelled the
end. The British army had an ace up its sleeve:
a regiment called the Royal Scottish Greys that were quite peeved that they hadn’t
been able to fight the French the day before at the Battle of Quatre Bras. They were ordered to attack the advancing
French. Despite how popular depictions of this attack
such as the 1881 painting Scotland Forever! or the movie Waterloo melodramatically present
it with horses at full gallop, the ground was so soggy and uneven at the Battle of Waterloo
that the soldiers attacked at barely above walking speed. Still, they penetrated the French infantry,
managed to reach the French artillery and drive away the crews, captured one of the
beloved Eagles of the French Army, and most significantly gave their associates time to
rally and saved the British center. Turns out attacks don’t have to be flashy
to get dramatic results. 6. The French Army’s Last Chance When Napoleon ordered his Imperial Guard to
attack the British at 7:30 pm, it is often portrayed as his last ditch effort. After all, the Imperial Guard had been unbeaten
for decades and was thought to be unbeatable. In truth even if the Imperial Guard had broken
Wellington’s army there would have been little chance for the French. The Prussians were still attacking from Napoleon’s
right flank with tens of thousands of fresh troops. No matter how elite they were, the Imperial
Guard were only several thousand and the final reserve. The Prussians would have almost certainly
driven them from the field either way. The actual last chance Napoleon had was at
roughly 3:00 pm. That was when the British army needed to resupply
their troops stationed at La Haye Sainte, which controlled access to their center and
would have allowed the French to split their lines early enough to then be able to reform
and stand against Blucher’s Prussians. The French nearly captured this position in
time, but ultimately didn’t capture it until 6:00 pm. As it happened, around 3:00 pm, the French
army became distracted from La Haye Saint in a big way. 5. The Misconceived Cavalry Charge As the British struggled to resupply their
forces at La Haye Saint, Wellington gave an order that inadvertently saved the position
for the British. He had his troops along the center ridge reposition
themselves. To Field Marshal Ney, it looked like the British
were beginning a retreat, and thus he gathered over 10,000 horsemen to attack. Since it was uphill over muddy ground, the
French were not attacking with anywhere near full force. Even if the conditions had been more favorable,
it likely wouldn’t have meant victory for the cavalry as the British infantry formed
into squares. In squares, their lines became effectively
walls of bayonets, and horses were not suicidal enough to run up and be impaled on such blades,
so the French cavalry were forced to ride fruitlessly around them. This stand still ended up costing the British
dearly. Ney saw that his cavalry charge wasn’t working
early on, but forming squares left the British troops much more vulnerable to French artillery,
even with mud lessening the effectiveness of their cannonballs. It wasn’t so much standing up to French
horsemen as standing up to heavy losses of the barrages between the cavalry charges that
won the day for the British center. Such was the ferocity of their stand that
Ney had five horses shot out from under him. 4. The Controversial Dutch-Belgian Role While the British soldiers at Waterloo were
credited with putting up a brave and stubborn defense, and the Prussians were revered for
saving the day, the Dutch-Belgian troops known as the Hussars in Wellington’s army were
given little to zero credit. Admittedly lightly experienced both at Quatre
Bras and at Waterloo itself, the Dutch-Belgians were routed and chased off the field by French
cavalry. The situation was especially grievous at Quatre
Bras, with the massively outnumbered cavalry being forced to flee into the ranks of Dutch
militia, which resulted in chaos that made both forces easy pickings for the pursuing
French soldiers. As if that wasn’t a sufficient indignity,
in 1971 a diary by a Lieutenant-Colonel William Tomkinson was published. It was alleged in the diary that at Waterloo
large numbers of Dutch troops didn’t even fight in the battle at all, they just raiding
the British supplies in the rear. This has subsequently been dismissed as either
an exaggeration or a full blown fabrication by the diary’s editor, but the damage to
the reputation of the Hussars was still done. 3. No Quarter One of the grimmer aspects of the Battle of
Waterloo was that while the French Army was being routed, the order went up among the
Prussians and the British that no quarter be given. For the Prussian cavalry cutting down retreating
French men, even those that were surrendering, became something practically sport. Blucher’s chief of staff for one described
the hours of prisoner butchery as the “finest night” of his life. The French had hardly been paragons of virtue
up to that point. There had been no quarter given to the Prussians
at Ligny two days earlier or to any captured British troops at Waterloo. The belligerents were bitter enemies at that
point from decades of war, each nation having been in some way ruined by the others through
Napoleon’s disastrous continental system. The sentiment at the time was so brutal that
General Francois Roguet of the Imperial Guard ordered that any man who brought back a prisoner
was to be shot. 2. Waterloo Dentures Roughly 48,000 soldiers were killed or wounded
at the Battle of Waterloo, meaning thousands of corpses littering the formerly pleasant
Belgian countryside. To many people who visited the battlefield
in the immediate aftermath this meant the ground was rich with white gold, and teeth
were pried out of the mouths of corpses to be used for dentures. This was a time when the mouths of the wealthy
were almost invariably full of rotten teeth from all the sugar in tea and sweets. This wasn’t just vindictiveness against
the French invaders; it happened to Prussian, Dutch, and British dead. Since a full mouth could yield one hundred
pounds at a time when that was more than many people’s yearly salaries, many people became
amateur dentists. For those wondering why this would happen
at the Battle of Waterloo and not at the dozens of other, equally large battles during the
Napoleonic Wars, the answer is it probably did happen elsewhere. There’s no surviving evidence that people
at the time knew their teeth came from the dead of battles, and it does seem like a ghoulish
thing no one would want to advertise. It wasn’t until 1832 that the practice was
formally banned and the 1850s that technology reached a point where real human teeth made
for passable dentures. 1. The Very Last Victory There was something of an ironic postscript
to Waterloo: the French technically won the very last day of the campaign. Even as Napoleon was being so fiercely pursued
back to Paris that he was forced to abandon his carriage, Field Marshal Grouchy was still
fighting with the rear guard under General Johan von Thielmann that the Prussians had
left in the north to hold him off at Wavre. Both the French and Prussian forces fought
very capably and bravely at Wavre and suffered very equal casualties, but the most significant
factor was that the 30,000 French troops weren’t at Waterloo — where Napoleon desperately
needed them — and they did nothing to slow Blucher’s arrival at the main battle. Indeed, practically as soon as Grouchy drove
the Prussians from the field, a distraught French messenger arrived and told him that
the war was effectively lost. Imagine the look of disappointment that must
have crossed Grouchy’s face when he learned that 2,600 of his men had been killed or wounded
for, if anything, much less than nothing. Then they had
to go home in disgrace.