Weird History

Why Did Napoleon Lose The Battle Of Waterloo?  

Melissa Sartore
190 votes 75 voters 5.7k views 9 items

List Rules Vote up the defining moments that caused Napoleon to lose the battle.

When Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France in 1815, he brought with him a Hundred Days campaign to recapture his power and glory. Napoleon emerged from the French Revolution as a military hero and, during the last decade of the 18th century, seized control of the French government. He consolidated his authority in France while embarking on military campaigns throughout Europe, establishing himself as consul for life in 1802 and emperor two years later. 

By 1812, Napoleon fought against nearly every European country, attempting to take over lands from Britain to Russia. A series of losses, including a failed campaign into Russia, led to his downfall and, when a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and Swedish troops marched into Paris in 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate. As a condition of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he went into exile on the Isle of Elba in the Mediterranean. He retreated to the small parcel of land, only to return to Europe in early 1815. 

Napoleon took power again and began his Hundred Days campaign. As British, Austrian, Russian, and Austrian forces once again came together to stop him, he gathered forces to rebuild his empire. His final campaigns, fought in Belgium, culminated in his defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

Napoleon's last fight at Waterloo pitted him against Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. With 72,000 men, the French army outnumbered Wellesley's forces - some 68,000 strong - but at the end of the day, Napoleon was once again defeated. He suffered roughly 40,000 casualties at Waterloo, nearly twice as many as the coalition against him.

There are various theories about what went wrong for the French at Waterloo, with Napoleon himself blaming poor generalship and bad health. What could have been a world-changing victory slipped through his fingers, but what actually led to his defeat? Here's a tactical roundup of the Battle of Waterloo. Which decision ultimately sealed his fate and sent him off to St. Helena, where he passed just a few years later?

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He Launched A Diversionary Att... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list Why Did Napoleon Lose The Battle Of Waterloo?
Photo:  Zen3500/Wiimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
5 25 VOTES
He Launched A Diversionary Attack On Hougoumont Farm

The bulk of British Commander Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington's forces were lined up at Mont St. Jean along a plateau, with additional forces at nearby Papelotte, La Haye Sainte, and Hougoumont farms. Napoleon wanted to draw out the British from their higher ground and sent a group to strike Hougoumont Farm. 

The diversionary troops were led by General Honere Reille and Napoleon's brother, Jerome. From Hougoumont, a relatively small group of British forces managed to withstand the French. Even after the French broke through the gate at Hougoumont, the British were able to quickly close it again. In doing so, they trapped several Frenchmen inside, shooting and bayoneting them.

One observer, Mathew Clay, described:

Entering the courtyard I saw the doors or rather gates were riddled with shot-holes, and it was also very wet and dirty... many... bodies of the enemy; one I particularly noticed which appeared to have been a French officer, but they were scarcely distinguishable, being to all appearance as they had been very much trodden upon, and covered in mud.

Napoleon tried to take Hougoumont all day, sending between 13,000 and 15,000 French troops in the process.

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Napoleon Had Michel Ney Comman... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list Why Did Napoleon Lose The Battle Of Waterloo?
Photo: Louis Dumoulin/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
6 19 VOTES
Napoleon Had Michel Ney Command The Left Wing Of His Army

Marshal Michel Ney, Duke of Elchingen, Prince of Moskova, was one of Napoleon's best generals, one with a long history of success. He was commissioned as an officer in 1792, became Marshal of the Empire in 1804, and served valiantly in the failed strike on Moscow in 1812. By 1815, however, Ney was suffering from fatigue and had lost some of his military acumen.

Nicknamed "Red Lion" for his Red Hair, Ney was put in charge of the left wing of Napoleon's army at Waterloo. Late in the day, he ordered repeated cavalry strikes against Wellington's forces, supposedly having five horses shot out from under him in the process. Without infantry support, his cavalry efforts were futile. At the very end, Ney was said to have told his forces to "come and see how a Marshal of France can die," hoping for his own demise in the face of defeat.

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Napoleon Advanced His Troops I... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list Why Did Napoleon Lose The Battle Of Waterloo?
Photo: Louis Dumoulin/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
7 18 VOTES
Napoleon Advanced His Troops In A Column Assault On La Haye Sainte

When Napoleon ordered his men to advance toward La Haye Sainte, he sent them in column formations. Battalions lined up one after the other with little space between them. While the width was supposedly greater than its depth, the column proved "too extended to conduct any meaningful manoeuvre, and it is impossible to deploy, without much trial and error, into a good formation against cavalry."

These comments come from Colonel Bugeaud, who did not fight at Waterloo, but his frustration attests to the unwieldy nature of the column Napoleon dispatched on June 18. D'Erlon's use of columns proved problematic when he moved toward La Haye Sainte. By sticking to his traditional column formations, Napoleon exposed his infantry troops to cavalry strikes.

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He Left Elba is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list Why Did Napoleon Lose The Battle Of Waterloo?
Photo: Horace Vernet/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
8 19 VOTES
He Left Elba

Napoleon spent most of his time on Elba thinking about his escape. Writer William Crackanthorpe met with Napoleon during the latter's first exile, commenting, "At intervals… he seemed to relapse into a kind of reverie... when his countenance assumed that fiendish appearance... I doubt not that he breathed vengeance within himself against us for having come to see him in his humility.”

Elba was only a short distance from the Continent and Napoleon kept in constant contact with associates in France. He had numerous visitors and, while the British monitored him, they didn't know the extent of his machinations. On February 26, 1815, Napoleon left Elba, telling one colleague, "A thousand ideas and projects are formed; resistance is nowhere decided... I shall arrive before any plan has been organized against me."

His plans weren't enough and he didn't have the support he needed once he arrived in France. Even his secretary wrote, "That certainty of success which had made him so confident in the past... that faith in his star which had inspired him to venture on the hazardous enterprise of returning from Elba deserted him from the moment he reached Paris."

As he embarked on his failed Hundred Day campaign, Napoleon brought about his fate - being sent to a remote island in the South Atlantic. His failure did little to boost his legacy, he was stripped of his imperial title, and he lost all ties to his once glorious life.

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