1. The Return of the Exile
Late in 1814 the representatives of the Powers met at Vienna to arrange a settlement of Europe. But the settlement was hard to make. The Powers not only quarrelled but almost came to blows. And Napoleon in his exile, hearing of their disputes and of the growing discontent of France with the rule of Louis XVIII, thought his chance had come.
So one March evening he escaped from Elba, unnoticed by the British warships, and—landing in France—by the mere magic of his name, without the firing of a shot, he upset the Bourbon throne and made Louis XVIII once more an exile.
Napoleon professed the most peaceable intentions. He would never attempt to reconquer his Empire. He asked only that France might keep the ruler she had chosen. But England and her allies dared not trust him. They declared him an outlaw and the enemy of Europe. They pledged themselves to raise vast armies and maintain them till he had been utterly overthrown. And they hoped that, having now only French troops at his command, he would never raise a force sufficient to withstand them.
But Austrian and Russian troops themselves had to come from distant lands, and for the time Napoleon had only two considerable forces to face. By mid-June the Prussian army on the Rhine and in the Netherlands, under Field-Marshal Blücher, numbered nearly 120,000 men, and the English in Belgium under Wellington about 30,000, while Hanoverians and other Germans, Belgians, and Dutch raised Wellington's command, including garrisons, to some 105,000. Blücher 's army, however, and still more Wellington's mixed multitude, included many raw and untrustworthy troops; many utterly untrained; many trained indeed, but as soldiers of Napoleon.
Napoleon's one chance was to defeat these armies before their allies arrived. He himself could spare only 120,000 men from the defence of France, but then they were all tried veterans. He could not hope to beat the united forces of Wellington and Blücher, but for the moment they were scattered along a line a hundred miles in length, and a sudden unexpected onslaught might crush each in turn before they could concentrate.
So he collected his troops on the frontier, when Wellington and Blücher thought him far away. He drove the Prussian advance-guard back at the point nearest to the English position. He himself defeated the main Prussian army at Ligny (June 16th), compelling it to retreat, while Marshal Ney fought against Wellington the drawn battle of Quatre Bras. And Wellington (though—partly through Ney's mistakes—he more than held his ground, in spite of being taken unawares) was forced by the Prussian retreat to fall back himself, on June 17th, to the hill-side of Mont St. Jean, not far from the village of Waterloo.
But meanwhile the French had lost sight of Blücher 's army, and believed most of it to be marching away from the scene of conflict, whereas really it was slowly but surely approaching Wellington's chosen battleground. Also Napoleon, with extraordinary slackness, had neglected to pursue either foe till it was too late. At nightfall on the 17th his main force was only gradually arriving before the English position—weary, drenched by thunder-storms, and without baggage or adequate food. And meanwhile the division pursuing Blücher was wandering far behind him, doubtful almost to the last where he had gone.
Early in the morning Wellington had sent to Blücher an offer to fight Napoleon at Mont St. Jean next day if a single Prussian army corps came to his assistance. But Blücher had been disabled by a fall from his horse at Ligny, and all day long Wellington waited vainly for a reply. At last, however, after midnight, it came. And it promised that one corps should march to his aid at daybreak, and others follow if they could be spared.
2. Waterloo: The Marshalling of the Hosts
Thus reassured, the Duke prepared for battle. Sixty-seven thousand men were gathered on the ridge, but only 24,000 were British, while 14,000 were Dutch and Belgians, half-hearted and therefore unreliable. In front the ground sloped down to a valley, beyond which, on another low ridge, lay the enemy. For the most part this slope was open country, giving no cover to either attackers or attacked; but at three points in front of Wellington's position a farm with its outbuildings and enclosures formed a kind of stronghold, entrusted to specially chosen troops. Far to the right the farm of Hougomont was held by the English Guards; in the middle the King's German Legion occupied La Haye Sainte; and far to the left two smaller farms were manned by other German infantry.
Behind these Wellington drew up his first line—twelve brigades of infantry, of which half were English—on the crest of the hill, with the guns. To the left he placed part of his cavalry: the rest waited behind the centre. And in the rear of the right wing, hidden from the enemy by the sloping away of the ground behind the ridge, he massed most of the infantry reserve.
On the other side of the valley Napoleon, with his veteran army, some 74,000 strong, waited that hot Sunday morning till the June sun could dry the ground after the storms of the previous day, and the weary soldiers were rested enough to fight again. About 11 o'clock he formed the line for battle. He was determined to attack with his troops in heavy columns, while the English infantry, after its wont, stood in a "thin red line," only two ranks deep. He despised Wellington as a bad general. He despised the English as bad troops. He scorned the warning that in Spain the French column had always been beaten by the English line.
3. Waterloo: The Main Attack
About 11:30 the French began to move. The battle opened with an assault on Hougomont, gallantly repelled by the English Guards. Meanwhile, eighty French guns prepared the way for an infantry attack on Wellington's main position, and about 1:30 the attack began. Four vast columns climbed the slope, braving the English musketry, and drove the Dutch and Belgians of Wellington's first line in disaster to the rear.
But two English infantry brigades now stopped the way. Hindered by their deep formation from using more than a fraction of their firing power, the French were held back by a force only a fifth as numerous. And, as they checked, two brigades of English cavalry, in a thundering charge—killing, wounding, capturing—hurled them in utter ruin down the hill. Mad with the joy of battle, the pursuers, indeed, halted only when they reached the enemy's lines, and the French cavalry, in overwhelming numbers, drove them back with heavy loss.
Wellington had gained a breathing space, but he long remained in the utmost danger. He had been promised Prussian aid that morning, and this alone had induced him to fight. Yet it was one o'clock before the first Prussians appeared in the far distance. Mistakes and cautious delays prevented their arrival on the actual battlefield till four. And even then they gave Wellington no direct help, but only forced Napoleon to detach against them some 14,000 men who might otherwise have assailed the Duke.
Meanwhile, after a second futile infantry assault on Hougomont and La Haye Sainte, the French cavalry came into action against Wellington's centre. To meet the new danger, English and Hanoverians forsook their lines and formed in hollow squares, within which stood the gunners. Then the struggle began. Charge followed charge in swift succession. First one side of the squares was assaulted, then another. Once and again the French horse thundered right through to the rear of the English position.
Time after time, indeed, the steady fire of the squares broke the French ranks, and Wellington's reserves of cavalry chased the shattered squadrons down the hill. But time after time, too, the onslaught was repeated. Fresh cavalry divisions joined the fray: the survivors of the earlier charges rallied and renewed the attack. The squares, riddled by cannon-shot whenever the cavalry relaxed its efforts, grew ever smaller. The trustworthy reserves were all used up, Wellington had almost reached the end of his resources.
Then Ney called on his infantry again, and more regiments, fresh to the battle, assailed Wellington's battered and decimated troops. Yet once more the fire of the thin red line triumphed, till at last at La Haye Sainte, where the French cannon had shattered the walls and the defenders had exhausted their ammunition, Ney thrust a wedge into the English line. Then indeed Wellington was in direst danger.
But two things saved him. Ney's wearied troops could do no more; yet Napoleon refused till too late to send forward his last reserves. And a fresh Prussian force, arriving at length on Wellington's far left, set free two English cavalry brigades to aid his hard-pressed centre.
4. Waterloo: The Final Struggle
So, when, after seven o'clock, Ney led up the French Guards to a last assault, the English line had been reformed and strengthened to resist them. The French breasted the slope under a heavy fire from Wellington's guns, and broke, as it were, on the English front in three successive waves.
The first encounter on the right was short though fierce, and the assault was soon repulsed. In the centre Wellington's Guards were lying down, to avoid attracting attention, till the very moment of the attack, and it was now, tradition says, that his famous "Up, Guards, and at them!" was their signal for the fight. Springing to their feet, and firing one volley as they stood, they swept—still firing—towards the enemy, who forthwith broke and fled. And the third French division, coming up on the left, was shattered long before it reached the top by an English battalion, which swung round to fire upon its flank and then charged it with the bayonet.
So Napoleon's last effort failed, and Wellington, hurling his two remaining cavalry brigades down into the retreating masses of the foe, followed himself, with all his line, down the hill, and across the valley, and up the slope beyond it, till at the top his exhausted troops could move no farther, and left the Prussians to take up the pursuit.
5. St. Helena
Napoleon hastened to Paris, abdicated once again, proposed to fly to America, but—finding the coast too closely watched by English ships—finally surrendered to the captain of H.M.S. Bellerophon. The Bourbons would have executed him; the Prussians had meant to shoot him like a dog; the English Government itself had branded him as an outlaw. He claimed the rights of a guest, but to the Allies he was only an immensely dangerous prisoner. So a British man-of-war carried him out to the lonely island of St. Helena, off the African coast. And there, five years later, he died.
By the two Treaties of Paris made in 1814 and 1815 England returned many of her recent conquests. Every French colony, every Dutch possession in the East Indies, had been in her hands. Yet now she kept only places of peculiar importance, especially to her navy—in Europe, Heligoland and Malta, with a Protectorate over the Greek Ionian Islands; in Asia, the Dutch Ceylon; in Africa, the French Mauritius and the Dutch Cape of Good Hope; in the West Indies, half a dozen islands, chiefly French.
Her naval supremacy was now assured. Her prestige as the Power which alone had successfully withstood France single-handed, and whose wealth had built up every Coalition against her, was enormous. Her institutions, her methods of government, were extolled by half the civilized world. And her moderation in victory, and her eager efforts to abolish the cruel slave-trade, added something of moral grandeur to her triumph.