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THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO: PART 1 -THE START OF THE HUNDRED DAYS

The Battle of Waterloo fought in July 1815, and the Congress of Vienna which proceeded it, feature in my first book, 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling'. Amy's boyfriend, Freddy Ponsonby, is on the staff of the Duke of Wellington in Vienna, when news reaches them of the escape of Napoleon from exile on the Elba, and his triumphant entry into Paris in March 1815. Freddy and Wellington leave immediately for Belgium as Napoleon's army marches towards Brussels.

After the combined armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, they then pressed on to Paris, which was occupied on 30th March 1814. Napoleon abdicated on 6th April, and he was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he spent 9 months plotting his return. On 16th February 1815, while his guards were distracted, he boarded a ship and landed in France at Golfe-Jean on the Côte d’Azure.

Napoleon's return from Elba in February 1815
Napoleon's return from Elba in February 1815

Napoleon and his entourage marched north with whole regiments of the French army joining him along the way, until he reached Grenoble where a Royalist army awaited him. Seeing them aiming their loaded muskets at him, he stepped forward, opened his coat, and stated: "If any of you will shoot this emperor, then here I am." The army mutinied and came over to his side. As he headed towards Paris, Marshal Ney, who had been a commander in Louis XVIII's army, joined Napoleon, and he entered the capital on 19th March 1815, where Louis XVIII had already fled to Brussels.

Napoleon reassumed the throne and immediately started to mobilise the army in an attempt to rid France of its foreign occupiers. In May, the 124,000 strong L'Armée du Nord was formed, and this would be the main force that would fight at Waterloo. Meanwhile, the main powers in Vienna: Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain, now known as the Seventh Coalition, all mobilised their armies and declared war on France when they heard of Napoleon's return.

The Congress of Vienna. Wellington is on the far left.
The Congress of Vienna. Wellington is on the far left in the red coat.

Napoleon now had to decide whether to go on the defensive, or the offensive. He left Paris and Lyon defended by large armies, and chose to attack Brussels, as the British army there was only second-line and undertrained, as were the scattered Prussian forces under General Blucher. He hoped that a defeat of the Seventh Coalition would force them to agree to terms and sign a peace treaty, leaving him free to rule France again.

Napoleon marched the Armée du Nord across the Belgium border at Charleroi on 15th June and then split his army in three: the left wing was commanded by Marshal Ney, the right wing by Marshal Grouchy, and the centre by Napoleon himself. He sent Ney to the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, and Grouchy to intercept the Prussians.

The Prussian army was poorly trained and badly equipped, up until recently they had been allies of the French, and some battalions refused to fight their former allies, prompting some regiments to desert.

Grouchy engaged the Prussians under Blucher at the Battle of Ligny, and they were heavily defeated when Napoleon ordered the elite Imperial Guard to attack, but confusion led to the Prussian rear-guard withdrawing in good order from the battle and reforming. Grouchy was then given 33,000 men and ordered by Napoleon to chase the Prussians down, meaning attack and destroy the rest of the Prussian army, but Grouchy mistook the order to mean chase the Prussians away. They then reformed and would later come to the aid of Wellington at Waterloo.

The French were victorious against the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny
The French were victorious against the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny


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