King's College London
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The Duke of Wellington

Waterloo - the battle

The Battle of Waterloo, Sunday 18 June 1815

LifeguardsLifeguardsBlucher's fallBlucher's fallWellington faced Napoleon at Waterloo near Brussels. The choice of battlefield was not left to chance: the Duke had already undertaken its survey and knew that the location was propitious.

Wellington's troops were arrayed along the slope of the ridge and detachments were sent to guard the strategically important farmsteads of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont.

Napoleon's tactics were relatively straightforward: a diversionary attack on Hougoumont followed by a barrage of guns and a heavy punch into Wellington's main infantry.

Battle commenced at 11-30 am. Critically, and despite waves of attacking soldiers led by Napoleon's brother, Jerome, Hougoumont, under Lt Col James Macdonell, held out.

Map in morningMap in morningMap in eveningMap in eveningAt one stage, Macdonell personally helped close the open gates of the fortified compound, an action that, according to Wellington, saved the day.

At 1 pm the main body of the French infantry advanced to surround La Haye Sainte, which put up fierce resistance. Wellington called in reinforcements under Thomas Picton.

At 3 pm, as the battle moved into its crucial phase, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to launch an all out cavalry attack on La Haye Sainte in order to break the allied lines.

The attack failed as the allied infantry, soaking up artillery and taking huge casualties, held firm in their defensive squares.

Wellington, meanwhile, astride the redoubtable Copenhagen, rode between the positions barking orders and helping to hold the line.

Napoleon's forces had by this time been severely depleted, not least by the force he was required to despatch to hold off Blucher's advancing Prussians. With Wellington's centre weakening dangerously, and unable to summon reserves, around 7 pm Napoleon threw his 15,000 strong elite Imperial Guard into the battle.

Napoleon retreatsNapoleon retreatsPerhaps the heaviest fighting of the engagement now took place, and Wellington was in the thick of it, signalling a full-scale advance by lifting his hat three times to the growing cheers of his men.

The French retreated in disarray with the Prussians in pursuit.

By 9 pm the battle was effectively over.

Hours later, Wellington composed his famous Waterloo Dispatch describing the battle and how events might easily have turned against the allies. It was, he wrote:

'the nearest thing you ever saw in your life'

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