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.
Dustin Koski is also the coauthor of the fantasy novel A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.