the course of the Belgian campaign and the battle
12 June: Napoleon leaves Paris.
14 June: Napoleon's army reforms with remarkable speed. 128,000 men gather in the Beaumont region on the border of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
15 June: fording of the Sambre. The Emperor arrives in Charleroi.
16 June: two battles are launched. One section of the French army, commanded by Napoleon in person, defeats the Prussians on the battlefield of Ligny (a village situated 15 km to the North-East of Charleroi) while another faction of imperial forces led by Marshal Ney, meets Wellington's army at Quatre-Bras but is unable to take the crossroads, despite numerous attempts.
17 June: Blücher promises his British ally to fall back to Wavre. The Duke of Wellington then decides to give battle on the Mont-Saint-Jean plain. So the British and Belgo-Dutch troops fall back to the chosen position in good order under driving rain after the intolerable heat of the previous days.
18 June : Battle of Waterloo
- 11.30 French diversion attack led by the division of Prince Jérôme, Napoleon’s brother, against the farm of Hougoumont. There was a ferocious battle without the French succeeding in seizing any of the buildings.
- 12.30 Preparation of the artillery of the French Grand Battery of eighty cannons on the centre and the centre left of the Allied line.
- 13.30 Attack to the east of the roadway, between la Haie-Sainte and Papelotte, of the seventeen thousand foot soldiers of the 1st Corps of Drouet d’Erlon. Received by volleys of shots, pushed back by a bayonet attack of Picton’s troops, these men were then charged by the British heavy cavalry. It was a slaughter, and the 1st Corps surged back in disorder. Carried away by the action, the riders climbed back up the small valley to attack the Grand Battery. Scattered, their mounts tired, they were then counterattacked by the French lancers, who inflicted heavy casualties on them.
- 15.00 The Allied line had held; Napoleon had already lost the Battle of Waterloo.
- 16.00 Beginning of the charges of the French cavalry, directed against the Allied centre right (current site of the Lion’s Mound, between la Haie-Sainte and Hougoumont). Led by Marshall Ney for nearly two hours, these successive charges would align up to ten thousand cavalry on a front of less than ten thousand metres. On the plateau on the counter slope, the Allied infantry, formed in a square, resisted and held well, helped by what was left of the Allied cavalry, and above all the artillery, posted on the crest, whose gunners returned to their guns between charges, the French neglecting each time to spike their cannons or to take them with them.
- 17.00 The IV Corps under Bülow went on the attack against Plancenoit, where they fought hand to hand. Napoleon had to send in the Young Guard under Duhesme.
- 18.30 Very critical situation for Wellington, after the fall of la Haie-Sainte, where Ney was able to put some cannons in a battery and enfilade the Allied line. When Ney requested the infantry from Napoleon to exploit this success, the latter exhausted all his reserves, with the exception of a few battalions of the Guard that he hesitated to commit. Wellington dealt with the danger. He tightened the ranks in the centre while weakening his left flank. He knew that Blücher would arrive to relieve it.
- 19.30 Napoleon knew it as well, and after re-taking Plancenoit, he decided on a final attack to break through the Allied line before the arrival en masse of the Prussian troops. The Imperial Guard went back up the little valley, where they attacked the cavalry, supported by every able-bodied soldier that remained in the French army. The faithful Old Guard of legend advanced imperturbably under the volley of shots. They bent under the numbers, though, because Wellington had called all his reserves to the front: the Guards, Colborne, Detmers pushed back the Imperial Guard.
- 20.00 The Prussians arrived en masse on the field of battle. The French troops, seeing the Guard retreat, fell out while shouting treason. Grouchy had been announced to them, but it was Blücher … It was a rout; Wellington raised his cocked hat to give his men the order to advance.
- 21.00 The French surged back in retreat, with the sole exception of two squares of the Guard who succeeded in protecting the Emperor’s flight. Wellington and Blücher met and shook hands before the Belle-Alliance: their armies had won. As night fell, the battlefield looked like the apocalypse: nearly twelve thousand killed, thousands of injured moaning or dying, the bodies of thousands of horses lay strewn over the field where pillagers and highwaymen had already appeared … The last of the wounded were helped only three days later…
The number of dead and wounded is estimated at 50,000 men on the field of battle.
[Extract from the Dictionnaire de la bataille de Waterloo by Jean H. Frings (Braine-l’Alleud, Les Guides 1815, 1995)]