The Battle of Waterloo

(To Federico Gozzi)

Waterloo is one of the most important battles in history, as it represents the tomb of the Napoleonic Empire, which partly embodied the French Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas - being the necessary continuation of the French Revolution - while placing itself temporarily at the beginning of the Restoration era , or an era imposed in Europe in order to revive the old political order, restoring ancient kingdoms and privileges, swept away by the revolutionary wind that had invaded Europe.

The Napoleonic Empire was at its last breaths: Napoleon had just returned from exile from the island of Elba to regain power and rule the remnants of the Empire in the so-called "100 days" period, so called precisely to highlight his brevity.

The 18 June 1815 battle was fought between the French forces, led by Napoleon, and the forces of the "VII coalition" composed of England, Austria, Prussia and Russia, led by Wellington and Field Marshal Von Blücher. Napoleon ordered his troops to advance on Charleroi, and then fall to the center of the enemy camp, preventing their concentration in one place and thus defeating the opposing armies one by one. He also placed the army on two wings and set up a reserve, using the Guard to support the army that needed it most.
The coalition armies were caught unprepared by this move: Wellington and Von Blücher had positioned their armies in a territory between Liège and Ghent, without providing them with adequate connections between them. Marshal Ney, commander of the French army headed to Quatre-Bras, blocked his troops a few kilometers from the town because he believed he had the whole English army in front, while there was only a modest British contingent of 4000 men. This misjudgment allowed Wellington to understand the mistake he had made in positioning his troops: he ordered to immediately send reinforcements to the city in order not to risk losing the entire front.
Napoleon, having observed the Prussian alignment in Ligny, decided to attack because he believed he had before him the bulk of the enemy divisions. The offensive began simultaneously with that of Ney against Wellington, and was a great success. The Prussians were defeated but the French did not have the men necessary to pursue the enemy en route. For his part, Ney did not defeat the English. but he forced Wellington to retire because he had his hip uncovered due to the Prussian defeat. Finally, the whole coalition withdrew to Mont Saint Jean.

During the night between 17 and June 18 there was a big storm, which muddied all the land and made it more difficult, this detail was fundamental for the battle. Napoleon was not worried by bad environmental conditions: he went, as usual, to control the battlefield, fearful of a further British retreat that could postpone a direct confrontation. At 8: 00 the rain stopped and the weather improved. This allowed the Emperor to deploy the army. His plan was to attack, to constitute a diversion, the right wing of the British side and then order a frontal assault against the English, supported by an artillery cannonade and to occupy Moint Saint Jean and thus destroy the coalition. This brutal choice was given by the fact that, if the offensive had developed on the left wing, Wellington could have reunited with the Prussians, while thus it would have retreated towards the coast.
The French, therefore, attacked the castle of Hougomont, but were repulsed by tenacious British resistance. Not even the intervention of artillery and Napoleon succeeded in breaking down its defenses, thus allowing Wellington to occupy a large quantity of Napoleonic soldiers, also preventing the use of French cavalry.
The French right flank, placed in the direction of Chapelle Saint Lambert, was threatened by a possible Prussian attack. At that juncture Napoleon had the opportunity to fall back and gather forces to support a new battle and probably win the war, but decided to continue with his battle plan. In fact, the French began a cannonade against the opposing positions, but obtained a modest result. Furthermore, the subsequent assault by French infantry on La Haye Sante initially proved a failure, as coalition troops stationed there offered tenacious resistance. In the end, however, the position was also conquered and fell under Napoleonic control. This seriously jeopardized the integrity of the British camp, which risked defeat. While the situation for the allies was critical near Mont Saint Jean, given the French advance, the timely intervention of the English cavalry took place, which allowed to disperse the Napoleonic troops and to save the entire center of the Allied alignment. The charge of the cavalry was so explosive that the English dragons managed to reach the French artillery positions and threaten their survival; the Napoleonic horse units counterattacked by removing British troops from the area and protecting the French cannon battery.

The fighting continued at La Haye Sante. Ney, in command of the French heavy cavalry, launched repeated assaults and charges without the support of the infantry. This allowed the coalition forces to be able to dispose of themselves in square and withstand the French knights, whose office was slow due to the still muddy ground, finally managing to repel them.

Eventually, after numerous offensives, La Haye Sante finally fell into French hands, disrupting the Allied formation.
The arrival of the Prussian troops and their consequent attack on the right flank, near the village of Plancenoit, put the Emperor in difficulty. In fact, he strenuously defended the positions at Plancenoit, managing to win him back, but he had to employ his best departments for and lost numerous men in this action. This was decisive for the subsequent French assault on Wellington's troops attested at Mont Saint Jean, which turned out to be a real failure, since - despite the use of all available infantry, artillery batteries and especially the Imperial Guard (the elite of the Napoleonic army) - the French found themselves desperately defending the conquered positions, victims of the attack by the allied army.

Wellington had amassed all the available reserves and the surviving troops in the sector, to then employ them during the French offensive. In fact, during the advance of the French troops, the allies attacked the enemy, managing to confine the Guard in certain areas and forcing it later to the route. The defeat of the best Napoleonic departments made the panic spread among the French ranks: this caused the disbandment of the Napoleonic units, while the situation worsened with the arrival of the Prussian contingent near La Haye and Papelotte, which were conquered by the Germans.

The entire French front was in total disarray. The infantry retreated in a disorderly fashion. The battle was now lost. Wellington ordered the pursuit with the cavalry, but the Imperial Guard units, led by Napoleon, defended the companions strenuously to allow their retreat: despite the heroism demonstrated they were annihilated and the soldiers dispersed, chased by coalition forces. Napoleon, along with other generals, was reunited with the remnants of the first department of the Guard, under the assault of the enemy coming from all latitudes.
After the route, the Prussians pursued the retreating French, abandoning themselves also to barbarism and cruelty, massacring prisoners and soldiers, without sparing anyone, looting the riches of the Napoleonic army, such as cannons and chariots. Meanwhile, Wellington and Von Blücher met at Le Belle Alliance farm to define the results of the battle: it was decided to name the victory after the town of Waterloo, where the British had their headquarters.

The battle ended with the victory of the coalition and the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire. The French parliament, after a few days, challenged Napoleon (despite the modest successes of the French armies in other battlefields) and entrusted Joseph Fouchè, a member of the Convention and police minister, with a provisional government. In early July, the Prussians restored the ancient French monarchy by placing Louis XVIII on the throne. Napoleon, after an attempted escape, was captured by the British Navy and sent into exile to Saint Helena, where the 5 of 1821 died.

(photo: web)