7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Waterloo

Introduction

Explore seven surprising facts about one of the most significant battles in European history.

When Napoleon met his Waterloo, he wasn’t actually in Waterloo.

In spite of its moniker, the battle was waged three miles south of the town of Waterloo in the villages of Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit along the Mont Saint Jean Ridge. While the French referred to the military clash as the “Battle of Mont Saint-Jean,” it became known in most of the world as the “Battle of Waterloo” because the Duke of Wellington, who led the victorious forces, made his headquarters in the village and the dateline written on the official report he sent back to Britain ultimately became linked in popular memory with the battle. “Napoleon never set a foot in Waterloo—it’s a fact,” Belgian historian and former Waterloo resident Bernard Coppens told the Wall Street Journal.

British troops comprised only a minority of Wellington’s forces.

The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.
The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

The Duke of Wellington may have been British, but the army he led into battle was a multi-national force. British troops represented only one-third of Wellington’s army, and the majority of those soldiers were Irish, Welsh and Scottish. (Wellington himself was born in Ireland and of Anglo-Irish ancestry.) Approximately half of Wellington’s forces hailed from German states, and Dutch and Belgian soldiers fought in sizable numbers as well. In addition to Wellington’s army, more than 50,000 Prussians under Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher arrived at the battlefield in the late afternoon and turned the tide of the fight.

A defeated Napoleon considered an escape to the United States.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon returned to Paris, where he was forced to abdicate on June 22, 1815. He fled to the coastal city of Rochefort, from where he likely intended to sail to the United States, which had just concluded its own war with Great Britain. “You must have heard of the new misfortune of the emperor,” wrote one of Napoleon’s relatives to another in the wake of his abdication. “He’s going to the United States, where we shall all join him.” British ships, however, had blockaded Rochefort, and the former emperor did not want to risk the potential embarrassment of being caught hiding on board a vessel. With his passage to the United States blocked, Napoleon surrendered to a British warship on July 15, 1815, and three months later he was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he lived out his final six years until his death in 1821. Napoleon’s brother Joseph, the deposed king of Spain, was able to make safe passage to the United States from another French port and lived in New Jersey for 15 years. Fleeing Bonapartists also established the short-lived Vine and Olive Colony in Alabama as a safe haven.

Wet weather caused a fatal delay by Napoleon.

Plans of the Battle of Waterloo.
Plans of the Battle of Waterloo.

Heavy rain fell upon the region around Waterloo on the night before the battle. Napoleon’s artillery was among his greatest strengths, but the French emperor feared that the soggy and muddy conditions would bog down the advance of his men, horses and heavy guns. Hoping that the ground would dry, Napoleon waited until midday to launch his attack. The delay would prove costly as it ultimately allowed Blucher’s Prussian army to join the fight before the French could defeat Wellington’s forces.

Hemorrhoids may have been Napoleon’s true Waterloo.

As detailed in Phil Mason’s book “Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids: And Other Small Events That Changed History,” some scholars believe the French military leader suffered a painful bout of hemorrhoids on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo that prevented him from riding his horse to survey the battlefield as was his custom and could have contributed to his defeat. However, Waterloo expert Alasdair White told the New York Times that the story is “an absolute myth” concocted by Napoleon boosters because they “cannot believe that the great man lost, so there must have been something wrong with him.”

Scavengers harvested “Waterloo teeth” from dead soldiers to make dentures.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Within hours of the battle’s end, locals employing pliers as well as small hammers and chisels began to remove the front teeth from tens of thousands of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. With demand for human teeth high, the looters sold the pilfered teeth to dentists who crafted them into dentures. According to England’s National Army Museum, English dentists did nothing to conceal their sources, advertising the dentures as “Waterloo teeth” or “Waterloo ivory.” Even by the time of the Civil War, English dentists continued to do a brisk trade importing the teeth of fallen soldiers, still referred to as “Waterloo teeth.”

The Duke of Wellington pocketed a sizable tribute.

The peace treaty agreed to between France and the European powers in November 1815 reduced the size of French territory and required the defeated country to pay an enormous indemnity over the course of five years. In recognition of his service, Parliament awarded the Duke of Wellington 200,000 British pounds, equivalent to 15 million British pounds today, according to the Royal Engineers Museum.

Article Details:

7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Waterloo

  • Author

    Christopher Klein

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2015

  • Title

    7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Waterloo

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-battle-of-waterloo

  • Access Date

    December 16, 2017

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks