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Napoleon’s Escape from Elba and the Battle of Waterloo

Written by Ardil Ulucay


After the disastrous march on Moscow and the War of the Sixth Coalition, Napoleon’s great army with over 650,000 men drafted from the various nations of his vast empire, which stretched from the arid mountains and verdant plains of Spain to the borders of present-day Poland, had dwindled to a mere force of less than 60,000 men. The Austrians were at Versailles, the Prussian cannon could be heard in Montmartre, and the Cossacks were watering their horses on the Seine. While all these were happening, Napoleon was fifty-five kilometers away from central Paris in his palace at Fontainebleau. He was planning to make a frontal assault on Paris and recapture the city, but after deliberating with his Marshals for a while and hearing about one of his top generals, Auguste de Marmont, surrendering with his entire army to the Austrians, Napoleon had no other choice but to abdicate. He was allowed to take 1,000 of his famous Old Guard with him to the Island of Elba, his wife and kids were to keep their noble title, and he was to be given an annual payment of two million francs. In some way, this was an honorable exile. On March 31, 1814, Napoleon was taken to the Island of Elba. In his time there, Napoleon ruled over the small island well, improving infrastructure and introducing many legal and social reforms aiming to improve the lives of the people living on the island [3,4,5].



Chapter II, the Monster has escaped

─ February 26th, 1815

A courtier rushes into the King’s chambers with a letter in his hand and Marshal Ney behind him. The man squeals, “Your Majesty, The Monster! He escaped from Elba!”

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After 10 months in exile, Napoleon escaped from Elba. In a desperate gamble, with around 1,000 men. he sailed to the mainland of Europe. He landed at Golfe-Juan and made his way into the country. He received a warm welcome from a huge portion of the towns except a few royalist ones and took a route through the Alps known as Route Napoleon today. On March 5th, the royalist 5th Infantry Regiment surrounded Napoleon and his small force at Grenoble, and the next day they were joined by the 7th Infantry Regiment led by Colonel Charles de la Bédoyère. An anecdote illustrates that when the royalist forces were deployed to stop Napoleon from marching onto Grenoble at Laffrey, Napoleon stepped in front of his men lining up, facing directly into the enemy all alone without weapons. He ripped his coat off, exposed his chest, and screamed “Soldiers of the Fifth! If any of you will shoot his Emperor, here I am." The men joined his cause en masse. He kept marching towards Paris with almost every single unit that was sent to arrest him.

A short while after Napoleon seized the Versailles and changed the constitution to his liking The Great Powers of Europe consisting of Russia, Prussia, Britain and Austria came together at the Congress of Vienna and declared Napoleon an outlaw who seized the throne in an unrightful way. Afterward, these nations and their allies declared war on Napoleon himself.


After a few weeks, Napoleon mustered up a force of 250,000 (of which 20,000 were left in homeland France to prevent the Bourbon Restorations from taking over the country in his absence) men to march onto the 7th Coalition Armies, starting the Waterloo Campaign [4].



Chapter III, the Waterloo Campaign and the Defeat of General Blücher

─ June 15th-17th, 1815

The hostilities started on June 15th when the French forces defeated General Blücher’s army and captured multiple Prussian outposts on the Belgian border and crossed the River Sambre.

On June 16th, Napoleon defeated General Blücher at the Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny while Marshal Ney defended Napoleon’s left flank from Wellington.


On June 17th, Napoleon ordered Marshal Grouchy to take 30,000 men (One-third of Napoleon’s Main Army) to pursue Blücher and prevent him from meeting up with Wellington’s Army. Meanwhile, Napoleon grabbed the army’s reserves and pursued Wellington. On the night of June 17th, the Anglo-Allied army prepared for battle in an elevated field that was about 1.6 kilometers south of the Village of Waterloo [2,3].



Chapter III, Battle of Waterloo

─ June 18th, 1815

The battle that ended the Napoleonic Wars and ultimately changed Europe.


3.30 a.m: The Duke of Wellington receives a confirmation from Blücher that the Prussians will march on Waterloo as soon as possible.


6.00 a.m: The allied forces take their position to the north of Hougoumont Farm on an elevated position. The French Army deploys to the area surrounding La Belle Alliance.


7.00 a.m: Napoleon has his breakfast at La Caillou.


9.00 a.m: Wellington orders readjustments to the defense of the Hougoumont Farm. Napoleon sent his chief engineer to conduct a reconnaissance of the Allied defenses. Blücher sends a message to Wellington's Headquarters that he is en route.


11.00 a.m: Napoleon makes his decision to commence the attack on the left side, opposite Hougoumont.


11.20 a.m: The muskets crack, and the first shots of the battle are fired.


11.20 a.m - 12.20 p.m: The Allied Army is driven from the woods and orchard at Hougoumont. They conduct a counter-attack on the French Positions but fail.


12:20 p.m. — 1:15 p.m.: The fighting for the Hougoumont intensifies and French troops succeed in forcing entry. A huge bloodshed begins.


1:15 p.m. — 2:15 p.m.: The Prussian Army closes in on the French from the east. French cavalry had to face the Prussians approaching and slow them down.


1.30 p.m: Napoleon orders an attack at the Allied Army center, successfully pushing their line back to La Haye Sainte. Allied brigades then surround the French at this location, and push Napoleon back to La Belle.


2:15 p.m. — 3:00 p.m.: The resistance for Hougoumont continues. Nearly 15,000 men are embroiled in the task of taking or defending the chateau. Napoleon launched his heavy cavalry and lancers to counter the Allied cavalry, and they inflicted heavy losses. The Prussian brigades are slowly advancing on the French.


3:00 p.m. — 4:00 p.m.: The buildings at Hougoumont were set on fire by the Allied forces and the ammunition of the British forces was almost over. French artillery reorganizes and the Grand Battery opens fire. To the east, the Prussian and French cavalry clash.


4:00 p.m. — 6:00 p.m.: Wellington readjusts his troops. The French misunderstood this action as a sign of withdrawal and ordered a concerted cavalry charge. The Allied infantry formed squares to attack. Attacks continue on La Haye Sainte and the Hougoumont, which remains in the clutches of the allies.


6:00 p.m. — 6:30 p.m.: After fierce fighting, La Haye Sainte falls into the clutches of the French and the village of Plancenoit falls to the Prussian forces. Napoleon is compelled to deploy troops to recapture the village.


6:30 p.m. — 7:00 p.m.: Napoleon’s troops and the Prussians relentlessly attack and counter-attack at Plancenoit, with the village eventually falling into the clutches of the French.


7:00 p.m. — 8:30 p.m.: Wellington reorganizes his central defense after the loss of La Haye Sainte. The Prussians once again regained control of Plancenoit. Napoleon gives orders for his famous Old Guard to advance north, and they suffer badly from the Allied artillery. The French begin to collapse and commence a disorderly retreat.


8:30 p.m. — 10:30 p.m.: Wellington signals an advance and rides to La Belle where he famously meets Blücher. The French recoiled and the Prussians took the pursuit [1].



Why Did the French Lose the Battle?

The Battle of Waterloo was a miscalculated mess, over 50,000 young men died in a single day because of an ambitious general. But why did the French fail? There were multiple factors affecting this such as

  • Miscommunication between Napoleon’s Marshals

  • A thunderstorm from the previous night ruined the battlefield and turned it into a hellish swamp

  • Napoleon’s ambition was to destroy Wellington, thus sending a huge portion of his men headfirst into the fortified enemy positions.

  • Marshal Grouchy’s inability to listen to his Staff Officers and holding the Prussians away from the Main army for an extended amount of time.



References:

  1. Brown University Library Exhibits, Battle of Waterloo https://library.brown.edu/cds/askb/waterloo/battle.html

  2. Brown University Library Exhibits, The Hundred Days & Precursory Battles

  3. https://library.brown.edu/cds/askb/waterloo/hundred.html Barbero, Alessandro (2006), The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, Walker & Company, ISBN 0-8027-1453-6 https://archive.org/details/battle00ales/page/n1/mode/2up

  4. Clausewitz, Carl von; Wellesley, Arthur (2010), Bassford, Christopher; Moran, Daniel; Pedlow, Gregory (eds.), On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815, Clausewitz.com, ISBN 978-1-4537-0150-8 This online text contains Clausewitz's 58-chapter study of the Campaign of 1815 and Wellington's lengthy 1842 essay written in response to Clausewitz, as well as supporting documents and essays by the editors. https://www.clausewitzstudies.org/readings/1815/TOC.htm

  5. Waln, Robert (1825), Life of the Marquis de LaFayette: Major General in the Service of the United States of America, in the War of the Revolution..., J. P. Ayres, p. 463 https://books.google.com.tr/books?id=X7Xh8AiGgrwC&pg=PA463&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false







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