On 18 June 1815 a bloody encounter 10 miles south of Brussels altered the course of Europe’s history and gave the English language a new maxim: to meet your Waterloo
The final showdown between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte intent on domination of Europe and allied troops under the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley), was, in the latter’s words, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life,” and is forever known as The Battle of Waterloo.
After more than 20 years of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) convulsing the Continent, and hot on the heels of Napoleon’s escape from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, here was the reckoning.
On 18 June 1815, the French met Wellington’s British troops and their Dutch and German allies defending a high ridge near the village of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium.
The terrible battle raged all day – the Dover Gazette reported that Napoleon’s ‘Beautiful Daughters’ (12-pounder cannons) could be heard some 140 miles away on the English seafront. But Wellington had chosen his ground well. Facing superior French numbers (72,000 men and 246 cannons against 68,000 allies with 156 cannons), his forces withstood relentless artillery and cavalry charges until Field Marshal Blücher swooped in with Prussian reinforcements in the evening to clinch victory.
Napoleon was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic (he died there in 1821) and the Great Duke was fêted as the saviour of Europe. General European peace, apart from the Crimean War (1853-1856), would last right up until 1914.
The battle itself, while epic, was a bloodbath with 65,000 people killed or injured, Wellington said: “It was the most desperate business I was ever in.”