Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the Italian island of Elba on February 26, 1815. He landed in Cannes three days later and moved swiftly north, entering Paris on March 20 just as his unpopular replacement – the slothful King Louis XVIII – high-tailed it to Ghent. Thousands of Frenchmen rallied to Napoleon’s colours and, with little delay, Napoleon marched northeast to fight the two armies that threatened his future. Both were in Belgium. One, an assortment of British, Dutch and German soldiers, was commanded by the Duke of Wellington, the other was a Prussian army led by Marshal Blücher. At the start of the campaign, Napoleon’s army was about 130,000 strong, larger than each of the opposing armies but not big enough to fight them both at the same time. Napoleon’s strategy was, therefore, quite straightforward: he had to stop Wellington and Blücher from joining together – and to this end he crossed the Belgian frontier near Charleroi to launch a quick attack. On June 16, the French hit the Prussians hard, forcing them to retreat and giving Napoleon the opportunity he was looking for. Napoleon detached a force of 30,000 soldiers to harry the retreating Prussians, while he concentrated his main army against Wellington, hoping to deliver a knockout blow. Meanwhile, Wellington had assembled his troops at Waterloo, on the main road to Brussels.
At dawn on Sunday June 18, the two armies faced each other. Wellington had some 68,000 men, about one third of whom were British, and Napoleon around five thousand more. The armies were deployed just 1500m apart with Wellington on the ridge north of – and uphill from – the enemy. It had rained heavily during the night, so Napoleon delayed his first attack to give the ground a chance to dry. At 11.30am, the battle began when the French assaulted the fortified farm of Hougoumont, which was crucial for the defence of Wellington’s right. The assault failed and at approximately 1pm there was more bad news for Napoleon when he heard that the Prussians had eluded their pursuers and were closing fast. To gain time he sent 14,000 troops off to impede their progress and at 2pm he tried to regain the initiative by launching a large-scale infantry attack against Wellington’s left. This second French attack also proved inconclusive and so at 4pm Napoleon’s cavalry charged Wellington’s centre, where the British infantry formed into squares and just managed to keep the French at bay – a desperate engagement that cost hundreds of lives. By 5.30pm, the Prussians had begun to reach the battlefield in numbers to the right of the French lines and, at 7.30pm, with the odds getting longer and longer, Napoleon made a final bid to break Wellington’s centre, sending in his Imperial Guard. These were the best soldiers Napoleon had, but slowed down by the mud churned up by their own cavalry, the veterans proved easy targets for the British infantry, and they were beaten back with great loss of life. At 8.15pm, Wellington, who knew victory was within his grasp, rode down the ranks to encourage his soldiers before ordering the large-scale counterattack that proved decisive.
The French were vanquished and Napoleon subsequently abdicated, ending his days in exile on St Helena, where he died in 1821. Popular memory, however, refused to vilify Napoleon as the aggressor – and not just in France, but right across Europe, where the Emperor’s bust was a common feature of the nineteenth-century drawing room. In part, this was to do with Napoleon’s obvious all-round brilliance, but more crucially, he soon became a symbol of opportunity: in him the emergent middle classes of western Europe saw a common man becoming greater than the crowned heads of Europe, an almost unique event at the time.