The Battle of Waterloo, which took place in Belgium on June 18, 1815, marked the final defeat of French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who conquered much of continental Europe in the early 19th century. Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French army during the French Revolution (1789-1799), seized control of the French government in 1799 and became emperor in 1804. Through a series of wars, he expanded his empire across western and central Europe. However, a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, coupled with other defeats, led to his abdication and exile in 1814. He returned to France in 1815 and briefly resumed power. The Battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon’s forces were defeated by the British and Prussians, signaled the end of his reign and the end of France’s domination in Europe. After Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated and later died in exile.
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Today, the expression that someone has “met his Waterloo” means the person has suffered a decisive or final defeat or setback.
Napoleon's Rise to Power
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The year before his birth, France acquired Corsica from the city-state of Genoa, Italy. Although Napoleon’s parents were members of the minor Corsican nobility, his family was not wealthy.
After graduating from a French military academy in 1785, Napoleon joined an artillery regiment of the French army. The French Revolution began in 1789, and within three years revolutionaries had overthrown the monarchy and proclaimed a French republic. During the decade-long revolution, Napoleon rose rapidly through the ranks of the military and proved himself a talented and daring leader.
After seizing political power in France in a 1799 coup d’état, he was given the title of first consul and became France’s leading political figure. In 1804, he crowned himself the emperor of France in a lavish ceremony. Under Napoleon, France engaged in a successful series of battles against various coalitions of European nations, and the French empire expanded across much of western and central continental Europe.
Napoleon's Abdication and Return
In 1812, Napoleon led a disastrous invasion of Russia in which his army was forced to retreat and suffered massive casualties. At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese, with assistance from the British, drove Napoleon’s forces from the Iberian Peninsula in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). In the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of Nations, Napoleon’s army was defeated by a coalition that included Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops. Afterward, Napoleon retreated to France, where in March 1814 coalition forces captured Paris.
On April 6, 1814, Napoleon, then in his mid-40s, was forced to abdicate the throne. With the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy. Less than a year later, on February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba and sailed to the French mainland with a group of more than 1,000 supporters. On March 20, he returned to Paris, where he was welcomed by cheering crowds. The new king, Louis XVIII (1755-1824), fled, and Napoleon embarked on what came to be known as his Hundred Days campaign.
Napoleon Marches on Belgium
Upon Napoleon’s return to France, a coalition of allies–the Austrians, British, Prussians and Russians–who considered the French emperor an enemy began to prepare for war. Napoleon raised a new army and planned to strike preemptively, defeating the allied forces one by one before they could launch a united attack against him.
In June 1815, Napoleon’s forces marched into Belgium, where separate armies of British and Prussian troops were camped. At the Battle of Ligny, on June 16, Napoleon defeated the Prussians under the command of Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742-1819). However, the French were unable to totally destroy the Prussian army.
The Battle of Waterloo
Two days later, on June 18, Napoleon led his army of some 72,000 troops against the 68,000-man British army, which had taken up a position south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo. The British army, which included Belgian, Dutch and German troops, was commanded by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), who had gained prominence fighting against the French during the Peninsular War.
In a critical blunder, Napoleon waited until midday to give the command to attack in order to let the waterlogged ground dry after the previous night’s rainstorm. The delay gave Blucher's remaining troops, who, by some accounts, numbered more than 30,000, time to march to Waterloo and join the battle later that day.
Although Napoleon’s troops mounted a strong attack against the British, the arrival of the Prussians turned the tide against the French. The French emperor’s outnumbered army retreated in chaos. By some estimates, the French suffered more than 33,000 casualties (including dead, wounded or taken prisoner), while British and Prussian casualties numbered more than 22,000.
Reportedly fatigued and in poor health during the Belgian campaign, Napoleon committed tactical errors and acted indecisively. He also was blamed for appointing inadequate commanders. Ultimately, the Battle of Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon’s storied military career. He reportedly rode away from the battle in tears.
Wellington went on to serve as British prime minister, while Blucher, in his 70s at the time of the Waterloo battle, died a few years later.
Napoleon's Final Years
On June 22, 1815, Napoleon once again abdicated. That October, he was exiled to the remote, British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean. He died there on May 5, 1821, at age 51, most likely from stomach cancer. Napoleon was buried on the island; however, in 1840, his remains were returned to France and entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, where other French military leaders are interred.
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