The Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815, was the final defeat of the master tactician and strategist, Napoleon Bonaparte at the hands of Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. It was an epic struggle, marked by desperate charges and extreme displays of heroism.
During breakfast the morning before the battle, Napoleon was warned by his staff not to take Wellington and his infantry head-on. Napoleon snapped, “Because you have been beaten by Wellington you consider him a great general. And now, I will tell you that his is a bad general, that the English are bad troops, and that this affair is nothing more serious than eating one’s breakfast.” He could not have been more wrong.
Over 7,000 French cavalry charged against the British “squares”–rigid, rectangular formations of soldiers designed to impede the otherwise overpowering impact of a mounted charge. Sergeant Tom Morris of the British 73rd Regiment marveled at the utter determination of the French legions, “their appearance was of such a formidable nature that I thought we did not have the slightest chance against them.” Lieutenant Rees Gronow of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards described the sound of bullets against the breastplates of French cuirassiers as, “…the noise of a violent hail storm beating on panes of glass.”
But the sheer force of Napoleon’s cavalry proved to be no match for the genius and inspired leadership of Wellington, and the destructive power of disciplined and well-positioned British infantry.
In contrast to the independent and often impetuous nature of cavalry which Wellington despised, British infantry was known for its qualities of order, regularity, and dependability. Wellington held his infantry in high regard. His love for infantry reflected his characteristic desire to control everything himself. He distrusted subordinates, usually neglecting to share his plans with them before battles. He liked doing everything himself. In modern vernacular, he was a control freak.
Wellington’s controlling nature can be seen as a negative quality, but when combined with his superb intellect, skill, and confidence, it made him unstoppable in battle.
When first assigned to the Iberian Peninsula several years earlier, Wellington was asked if he was anxious about fighting Napoleon’s renowned armies. His reply reveals confidence in himself and in his beloved Infantry: “I don’t think they will outmaneuver me. First, because I am not afraid of them as everyone else seems to be, and secondly, because, if what I hear of their system of maneuvers is true, I think it a false one against steady troops.” French General Maximilien Foy spoke of the brilliant patience and skill demonstrated by his adversary in the Peninsula, saying, “hitherto we have been aware of [Wellington’s] prudence, his eye for choosing a position, and his skill in utilizing it. At Salamanca, he has shown himself a great and able master of maneuvers. He kept his dispositions concealed for almost the whole day. He waited until we were committed to our movements before he developed his own…”
At Waterloo, Wellington demonstrated the same brilliance, occupying the most defensible position he could find, and carefully positioning his troops such that he could commit them at his leisure, as the battle unfolded before him.
Wellington’s recollection of Waterloo tells of its ferocity and the bravery of his favorite arm of service: “It was the most desperate business I was ever in. I never took so much trouble about any battle, and was never so near being beat. Our loss is immense [there were over 23,000 Allied casualties at Waterloo], particularly in that best of all instruments, British infantry. I never saw the Infantry behave so well.”
From all accounts of the battle, the duke is said to have been present wherever danger seemed most pressing, inspiring his men with encouraging words. Wellington’s demonstrative leadership was of the highest order at Waterloo, where he rode from square to square, sometimes taking refuge directly inside them as French cavalry swarmed around. His courage inspired the infantry who recognized their fearless leader in their midst.
The featured scene shows Wellington galvanizing his troops at Waterloo before receiving another French cavalry attack. It is a copy of a lithograph created by Robert Alexander Hillingford. Wellington is riding astride a battle-weary square, dreadfully depleted and about to receive another furious attack by French cavalry. He called to them, “Men, we must never be beaten! Stand firm my lads! What will they say of this in England?” He is wearing his familiar white pantaloons tucked into Hessian boots, a scarlet tunic, and black cocked hat.
Wellington is mounted on Copenhagen, a gift horse named for the Danish city he had captured years earlier. Legend has it that after the battle, Wellington dismounted and made the mistake of giving Copenhagen an unexpected pat. The noble steed lashed out and narrowly missed braining his master with a swift kick. I guess even the horse had had enough fighting for one day.