Here we look at the tactical errors that led to Napoleon's defeat.
His aggression united Europe against him
After defeat by coalition forces in 1814 Napoleon was imprisoned on the island of Elba. He escaped and returned to France, where he quickly rallied the nation and determined to conquer the continent. Napoleon's aggression ensured the whole of Europe was united against him.
He missed the chance of decisive victories before Waterloo
In the run up to Waterloo the French army split to fight separate battles against an Anglo-Allied force led by the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussians under Marshall Blucher, but was unable to deliver a knockout blow to either.
Both Marshall Ney, engaging Wellington, and Napoleon, battling the Prussians, called on reinforcements from a reserve corps led by Count d'Erlon. But with the two requesting help at the same time, the reinforcements marched aimlessly between both fights without firing a shot.
French fighting numbers were reduced at Waterloo
The Prussians were beaten at Ligny but able to retreat in strength, and aimed to regroup with Wellington at Waterloo.
Napoleon recognised the threat and sent a third of his army to stop the Prussians at Wavre.
As a result, the armies of the French and Wellington's Allied force at Waterloo were of similar size.
Weather nullified his favoured tactics
Heavy rain during the night made the battleground very muddy. This affected the French in two ways.
The first was to encourage Napoleon to delay his attack to give the ground time to dry, but this also gave Bluchy's reinforcements extra hours to reach the battle at Waterloo.
The second was to soak up the impact of the shots and shells fired by French artillery and nullify the damage they caused, helping Wellington's forces repel the constant French attacks and making it easier for them to inflict damage on the attacking infantry.
French commanders made bad decisions
During the fight Marshall Ney launched an impulsive, unsupported cavalry charge into the centre of Wellington's infantry. The defensive force formed themselves into squares with bayonets pointing out on all sides. The attacking horses refused to complete the charge and the French suffered many casualties.
Reinforcements arrived to win the day
The French secondary force had been unable to stop the Prussians at Wavre and the 40,000 strong army made it to Waterloo to boost coalition numbers, giving them a significantly bigger force than the French.
Wellington's defensive tactics were superb
Realising the danger of his situation Napoleon ordered his Imperial Guard to launch a last ditch frontal assault on Wellington's lines. But they were attacking up hill with British troops hidden by a ridge. With a wave of his hat Wellington signalled his men to launch a surprise attack and the elite Imperial Guard retreated, causing panic among French ranks.
Defeat marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and led to Napoleon's abdication and his final exile on St Helena.
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Information for this article was sourced from the following resources:
- National Army Museum, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/battle-waterloo
- Future Learn, https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/wellington-and-waterloo/0/steps/24850
- Battle File, http://www.battlefile.info/Waterloo/weapons.php
- Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/story/200th-anniversary-of-the-battle-of-waterloo
- Emory Endeavors in History, http://history.emory.edu/home/documents/endeavors/volume5/gunpowder-age-v-huh.pdf
The image in this article shows the charge of the French Cuirassiers at the Battle of Waterloo. Photo by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux. Available from https://www.goodfreephotos.com under the Creative Commons Licence.