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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Napoleon's tactics

Napoleon addressing massed ranks of his troopsThe Field of MayNapoleon’s exile was short lived. In February 1815 he escaped from Elba with 1,000 soldiers. As he marched towards Paris, French troops sent to arrest him repeatedly opted to join him instead, and he was able to amass a sizeable army. In response, the Allied powers began to ready their armies for battle.

Napoleon knew that an early attack – launched before his adversaries were given time and opportunity to combine their efforts against him – offered by far his best hope of destabilising the Allied stance. Thus, having calculated the direction from which Allied forces would meet in the countryside outside Brussels, Napoleon sent his troops to take up position in readiness. 

On the morning of 16 June 1815 the battle commenced. The Prussian Army arrived first at Ligny. Led by Blücher, they held out against repeated attacks for most of the day. Meanwhile, seven miles down the road, Wellington’s troops were taken by surprise at Quatre Bras, and it took him some time to re-organise his men for battle. After a final French advance punctured the centre of the Prussian line and Blücher’s army was forced to flee. Wellington, aware that the Prussians were retreating and that his army would be unable to defeat the French alone, staged a partial withdrawal.

Napoleon had achieved victory on both fronts. However, his success was only partial, his inability to capitalise on the opportunities offered that day costly. Mismatched orders meant that a corps of 19,000 men had spent the day marching between Quatre Bras and Ligny without ever entering into battle. Had they fought on either front they could have made an important, perhaps even decisive, difference. Moreover, overestimating their losses, Napoleon failed to send troops to pursue the retreating Prussians until late the next day. Consequently they were able to escape and ready themselves for the final showdown at Waterloo.

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