The War of the Seventh Coalition


Cavalry chargeDuring the last months of 1814, Napoleon grew bored playing at Emperor of Elba. He never took his eye off France, where the Allies had made the mistake of restoring an eager but weak Bourbon king to the throne. King Louis XVIII had neither Napoleon’s charm nor his charisma. France had a constitutional monarchy now, but with royalists threatening to abolish the gains of the revolution, and the economy floundering, the King soon became unpopular.

For ten months, Napoleon watched and waited. Then, on February 26, 1815, he slipped off of Elba with a handful of soldiers and eluded the British fleet. “After making a mistake or suffering a misfortune,” he said, “the man of genius always gets back on his feet.”

Once ashore, only the King’s army would stand between Napoleon and Paris. Six days after landing in France, he confronted a regiment of infantry ordered to bar his way. Napoleon advanced alone to meet them: “Soldiers,” he cried, “if there is one among you who wants to kill his general, his Emperor, here I am.” Suddenly, the soldiers began cheering wildly, “Long live the Emperor. Long live the Emperor.”

“In ten days, Napoleon said, “we will be in Paris… The eagle will fly from steeple to steeple until it reaches the towers of Notre Dame.” Two weeks later, Napoleon was in the French capital, and Louis XVIII had fled. The news hit Europe like a bombshell. “The Devil,” his enemies said, “has been unchained.”

For months after Napoleon’s abdication, the Allies had been at odds with one another as they met in Vienna to hammer out an agreement to determine the shape of post-war Europe. Now Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia united once again to declare Napoleon an outlaw — “an enemy and a disturber of the tranquility of the world” — and readied their armies for war.

“That certainty of success which had made him so confident in the past,” his secretary wrote, “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.”

By the end of May, the British and Prussians had two armies in Belgium. Austrian and Russian soldiers were on the way. Napoleon’s only hope for survival was one last, desperate gamble. He planned to drive a wedge between the British and the Prussians, and defeat them before the Austrians and the Russians could arrive. Napoleon raised an army, and marched toward Waterloo.

Napoleon’s fate would be decided on a field of clover and rye, one mile long and three miles wide. Waiting for him was Great Britain’s most formidable soldier, the Duke of Wellington.

Wellington commanded 68,000 men, but he was counting on 72,000 more – the Prussians, led by Marshal Bleucher von Wahlstatt. Bleucher’s greatest wish was to capture Napoleon and have him shot.

Beaten by Napoleon at the village of Ligny on June 16, Bleucher withdrew his troops. Unsure if Wellington would stand, Bleucher hesitated to send his troops into Napoleon’s path again. But, with Bleucher and the Prussians by his side, Wellington would outnumber Napoleon two to one. The Duke impatiently waited for the Prussians to arrive.

But Bleucher was still many miles from the battlefield, and Napoleon had sent a sizeable force of his own to intercept him. It was not clear whether Bleucher would get there on time, or at all. The night before the battle, the soldiers on both sides caught what sleep they could under a heavy downpour. The next morning, Sunday, June 18, they were sopping wet. So was the field on which they were to fight, now dotted with puddles and caked in mud.

Wellington took a strong, defensive position, well aware of Napoleon’s genius on the attack. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the Duke and his soldiers braced themselves. But Waterloo remained silent. Nearly five hours had passed since daybreak, yet Napoleon had not given the order to attack. He said he was waiting for the ground to dry so he could maneuver his cannon. “I felt that Fortune was abandoning me,” Napoleon said. “I no longer had the feeling that I was sure to succeed.”

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Strategic level

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