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The Hundred Days: The War of the Seventh Coalition and Waterloo

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At the end of 1814 Paris had been conquered, Napoleon had been beaten and he’d been forced to abdicate. He was exiled to the island of Elba, and the victorious powers gathered at the Congress of Vienna to finalize the peace. However the former allies proved deeply divided, and Napoleon soon grew bored at life, annoyed that the French weren’t paying him his allowance and pined for his missing wife and son. He was also following the Congress, believed he could split their alliance and return to power, especially as the new King of France was unpopular and people were worried he’d restore land or the entire ancient regime.

Napoleon thus left Elba, sneaked onto mainland France, and proclaimed his arrival. He started with a thousand men and six guns and as he marched on Paris gathered many more until he had an army, including many of his old Marshalls, most of the surviving army, and even people sent by the French crown to stop him. Many high ranking commanders of Napoleon’s day remained in place in the army, but were embittered by royal favorites behind promoted ahead of them and the many homeless and impoverished soldiers who were without money or pay under the new king. He then fled, and Napoleon assumed command of France. He had once again shown personal bravery – confronting soldiers ordered to kill him – and was rapturously accepted as he progressed. At first Napoleon proposed peace, a liberal constitution and offered to just rule France. Whether he would have is a mystery, as he never had the chance.

The Seventh Coalition and the Road to Waterloo

As the states which had fought against Napoleon were gathered at the Congress of Vienna they were able to make a joint declaration: Napoleon was an outlaw, and a seventh coalition was put into effect to stop him. They would each field 150,000 men. Napoleon realized the difficulty he faced, as every major power on the continent was now at war with him, and he decided he would attack into the Netherlands, defeat the coalition force there, and hope he could use victory as leverage in negotiating his long term return to power. Napoleon organized his army, having 300,000 men, but ever the egotist left one of his most able commanders, Davout, in an administrative role in Paris, and left brave but tactically suspect men in charge of armies. Murat, who had been ejected from Italy, was refused employment.

There were two coalition forces in the Netherlands: Prussian led Germans under Blücher (90,000), and an international mixture of troops under Wellington (80,000). Neither commander got on with the other – but neither tried to deliberately mislead the other - and both had problems in their armies: Wellington’s were a raw, disparate bunch, while Blucher’s were infighting over rival states. Napoleon tried his usual tactic of hitting enemies while they were separate, and advanced. On June 16th Ney was sent to capture Quatre Bras while Napoleon attacked Blücher at Ligny. The latter was beaten and had to retreat, but Ney was stymied by the forward part of Wellington’s army, which decided to retreat slightly to a position they preferred near Waterloo. Wellington was unable to send reinforcements to Blucher because of the pressure the French had put him under, and only waves of these reinforcements helped the Wellington hold on at Quatre Bras. Ultimately, the failure of Napoleon’s forces to divisively beat either allowed them to retreat closer together.

The Battle of Waterloo

On June 18th Napoleon decided to attack Wellington, and sent a force under Grouchy – 33,000 strong - to hold the Prussians away. Wellington chose a position on Mont St Jean, although he later changed the name of the battle to the nearby Waterloo because the British would find the name easier. He stood on a front which had the stone Hougoumont farm near his right, La Haye Saint in the centre, and the Smohain hamlet on the left, plus a ridge he could use as cover. The reserve was behind the slope, while forward units would hold Hougoumont and La Haye Saint. Napoleon knew he had to win so attacked: he planned a diversion aimed at Hougoumont and a major attack in the centre.

Crucially, he was forced by rain to delay the advance until midday, costing vital time. Hougoumont was attacked repeatedly through the day, but the allies held it, and Wellington did not have to weaken his centre to support it. Attacks on La Haye Saint were also stopped. There was then a charge of 7,000 French cavalry – which wasn’t what Napoleon had ordered – but it wasn’t supported by infantry and it failed. Meanwhile Grouchy had failed dismally, allowing the Prussians to reinforce their coalition partners at Waterloo. With the Prussians nearing, La Haye Saint finally fell to the French, and the centre was in trouble, but Wellington brought troops over and stabilised it. As the battle wore on, Napoleon made a last effort by sending the Imperial guard in, against the right centre, but they were beaten, and Wellington ordered a general advance. The French were now beaten as a whole, exhausted and collapsing backwards. Napoleon retreated, and while there were still a few more incidents of fighting, his commanders knew he’d been beaten.

With no other choice, Napoleon abdicated on June 21st, fled to the British, and was sent in exile to the tiny island of St Helena where he remained imprisoned until he died in 1821. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were over.

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