With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Europe finally freed itself of French domination and entered into an era of political change which provided for the shifting of power and the restructuring of boundaries throughout the continent. The victory of the allied forces . commanded by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, represents a major turning point in world history. Undoubtedly the bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars, the fighting at Waterloo resulted in the death of one in four soldiers.
The beginnings of Waterloo can be traced to Napoleon's first abdication after his defeat in 1814. As punishment, the fallen leader was exiled to the island of Elba and Louis XVIII was placed in power by the victorious allies. With Napoleon removed from power, the Congress of Vienna was formed to resolve the problems arising from the defeat of the French Empire. However, Napoleon's exile was short-lived; the fallen emperor was able to escape, calling upon twelve hundred loyalists to support his return to France. Louis XVIII, realizing that his power and support were appointed and not earned, quickly fled Paris. As a result, Napoleon was able to reclaim power without confrontation. Fearing the ramifications of Napoleon's return, most of the nations present at the Congress of Vienna agreed that an immediate invasion of France was necessary, setting the stage for the decisive battle in the Napoleonic Wars.
With battle imminent, both Napoleon's forces and the combined allied army of British and Prussian troops began to move toward one another. The British Army was lead by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who was also the commander in chief of the allied forces. The Prussian forces were led by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher.
Napoleon's strategy was to engage the two armies separately before they had a chance to unite under one command. Given the haste in which the army was assembled and the fact that military conscription was suspended under Louis XVIII, Napoleon's forces were poorly equipped and ill prepared. Therefore, fighting the allied armies seperately was essential to French victory. In a strategic move designed to guard against the unification of the allied army, Napoleon decided to split his own forces, sending a minority of French soldiers under the command of Marshal Michel Ney to engage the Anglo-Dutch Army at Quatre Bas. Meanwhile, the emperor moved to intercept the Prussian forces at Ligny. On June 16, Napoleon defeated Blucher and forced the remnants of his army to retreat to Wavre. At Quatre Bas, Ney had initial success against the Anglo-Dutch Army commanded by Major General William Orange, whose tactical abilities were questionable. Eventually, Wellington arrived and initiated an counter-offensive, causing Ney and the French to withdraw. The next day both allied armies withdrew, Wellington to Monte Sainte-Jean and Blucher in his retreat to Wavre. The initial plan of the allies required Blucher to join Wellington's forces on the morning of June 18th for the battle against the French. Unfortuntely for the allies, it rained heavily the night of June 17th, preventing Blucher from advancing quickly, even though the distance between Mont Sainte-Jean and Waterloo was only eight miles.
On June 18th, both sides were prepared to meet at Waterloo. As a result of being outnumbered by sixteen thousand soldiers, Wellington's only strategy was to frustrate Napoleon's forces rather than engage them in an all-out offensive. The Duke was relying on Blucher to arrive with his already battle weary Prussian Army.
The French waited until 11:30 on the morning of June 18th before they attacked at Hougoumont. Napoleon's goal was to eliminate the allied escape route to Brussels, but Wellington's forces frustrated each wave of attacks. Finally, at four o'clock that afternoon, Blucher's army arrived, forcing the French to lose ground. The two sides then exchanged offensives, gaining and losing ground with each strategic move. Napoleon, seeing that his position was less favorable with each passing minute, launched a final offensive that was crushed by the allied forces. Though he did escape the battlefield, Napoleon was forced to abdicate as ruler of France for a second time on June 22nd. Six days later, Louis XVIII was restored to the throne.
In 1971, Waterloo was released starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. The film begins with Napoleon's abdication after his defeat in 1814 and his subsequent exile to Elba. Steiger's performance in this scene and throughout the movie shows Napoleon as a once great leader who is having trouble accepting that his era of dominance has ended. Dialogue between the characters in Waterloo is secondary to the battle scenes, which can be considered representative of the nature of the pitched battles that were fought by the traditional European armies. These battle scenes do allow the viewer insight into the simplistic nature of these ancient war strategies that became increasingly inefficient as weapons become more advanced. Plummer's portrayal of Wellington is one of the highlights of the film, offering some of the more humorous scenes in this movie about death and carnage.