Jim Buell, AP
On Sunday, June 18, 1815, Napoleon fought his last battle at Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was to be the first step in the re-creation of the former French empire but ultimately saw Napoleon forced to abdicate for the second time, never to return.
After Napoleon's disastrous 1812 war in Russia, the emperor's enemies had begun to multiply. More defeats followed, and by spring 1814, British, Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies had invaded France itself. Forced to abdicate under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba and Louis XVIII, younger brother of the beheaded Louis XVI, ascended the throne.
Restless on the island and aware of discontent within France toward the restored monarchy, Napoleon sailed back to France in March 1815 and soon began marching north toward Paris. Louis sent generals south to stop his advance, not only to protect his own position but to ensure continued peace in Europe. Every military force sent to stop the returned emperor soon joined his ranks, however.
Marshal Michel Ney, who owed his dramatic rise to power to Napoleon but was now eager to prove his loyalty to the new regime, promised the king he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage. Ney, like the others sent to stop Napoleon, was soon seduced by the emperor's promises and joined him once again.
Meanwhile, the allies that had defeated Napoleon one year earlier were conducting a peace conference in Vienna. When they heard the emperor was marching on Paris, they wasted no time in constituting their armies to defend against renewed French aggression.
The Russian army, always a slow and lumbering beast, would take its time reaching western Europe, so the Austrians deployed to protect the French approaches into Germany while the British and Prussian armies assembled in Belgium to protect the Low Countries.
On March 20, the French people and army welcomed Napoleon back to Paris and the emperor, keenly aware that his legitimacy had always depended on military victory and wartime emergency powers, delighted when his enemies now declared war on him personally — not on the nation of France.
In his book “Napoleon's Wars: An International History,” historian Charles Esdaile wrote: “With relatively few allied troops ready to take the field, the emperor could now either wait for the massive invasion that the Seventh Coalition was certain to mount as soon as it had brought up sufficient men or take the offensive and secure a dramatic victory that might win time for his regime to consolidate its hold on France or even shatter his enemies' resolve.
"Nor did it take much time to work out that the obvious targets at which to strike were the Anglo-Dutch-German army of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army of Field Marshal Blücher. ...”
Napoleon crossed the frontier into Belgium on June 15 at the head of an army approximately 72,000 strong. While the allied generals theoretically commanded roughly 118,000 troops, many were Dutch and Belgian troops whose loyalty was questionable. Many of those men had fought under Napoleon as imperial troops, so perhaps they, too, could be persuaded to join their former master.
Despite the desperate situation for the British, the Duke of Wellington attended a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. Putting on an unconcerned face during the festivities so not alarm the guests, Wellington met with his officers secretly in a back room.
James Harris, the Earl of Malmesbury, recorded that fateful discussion in his diary: “The Duke shut the door and said, 'Napoleon has humbugged me, by Gad! He has gained 24 hours' march on me.' The Duke of Richmond said, 'What do you intend doing?' The Duke of Wellington replied, 'I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre-Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here' (at the same time passing his thumbnail over the position of Waterloo).”
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