The battle of Waterloo is one of history’s most dramatic military encounters. Here, the authors answer 10 key questions about the clash that brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars…
Why does Waterloo matter?
A: Waterloo was the battle that finally and decisively ended the ambition of the French Emperor Napoleon to dominate Europe and shaped the continent during a hundred years of relative peace until 1914. It brought to an end a terrible war that had raged on and off for more than 20 years.
France had decisively lost the struggle for global mastery, and a victorious Britain went on to build the largest empire the world has ever seen.
What caused the battle?
A: In early 1815 Britain and her allies – Austria, Prussia and Russia – thought Napoleon was finished: he had been defeated and forced to abdicate a year earlier. But he bounced back from exile in February 1815 and astonished the allies by advancing fast toward Brussels, in Belgium.
Who were the protagonists on either side?
A: The overall commanders at Waterloo were two of the greatest generals of all time. Britain’s Duke of Wellington had never lost a battle in 12 years of war. Napoleon Bonaparte had in his time crushed every army in Europe except Britain’s.
Was the duke’s army all British?
A: Only a third of Wellington’s army was British. Most were from the German states with some units from the Netherlands.
Who were the men and how were they treated?
A: British soldiers got paid about £20 a year but only saw about half that. They were fed a pound of beef a day, and a pound-and-a-half of bread.
They got a daily ration of a pint of wine or a third of a pint of gin or rum. The average age that we can calculate was around 27 – the youngest soldiers were 17; the oldest were 44.
What sort of battle was it?
A: The battle was one of the last great contests fought at close quarters. The main weapon in both armies was still the musket. It had an effective range of little more than 50 yards.
How did Napoleon perform?
A: Napoleon was a shadow of his former self at Waterloo. He was not in good health, and his leadership was poor.
Was Napoleon short?
A: No. He was in fact 170cm or 5’7″, which was the average height for a male at the time.
Should we regard Waterloo as a great British victory?
A: Waterloo was not just a British victory. The Duke of Wellington would have been hard pressed to win without the timely assault of Marshal Blucher’s Prussians on Napoleon’s right flank. Besides, two thirds of his own army was made up of allies from the rest of Europe.
How many casualties were there?
A: It was a bloody battle. A veteran eyewitness said he had never seen “carcasses so heaped upon each other”. Some units lost two thirds of their men.
Overall, the British lost 17,000 who were reported killed, wounded or missing – around a quarter of the army. Napoleon may have lost as much as a third of his men.
Peter and Dan Snow’s The Battle of Waterloo Experience (Andre Deutsch) is available now