June 18th in German History: The Battle of Waterloo

Field Marshall Blucher, commander of the Prussian forces at Waterloo.

The Napoleonic Era was a grim period in history for Germany. Prussia and Austria were defeated in battle and forced to sign humiliating peace treaties with France. The Rhineland was subjugated, forced into a confederation that was little more than a French puppet. However, Austria and Prussia refused to accept their defeat, and so helped to end Napoleon’s supremacy in Europe after his failed invasion of Russia. Prussia would again stand against Napoleon when he returned in 1815. Along with Britain, Prussia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815.

Napoleon returned to France in March of 1815, quickly taking power in the country as armies sent to stop him joined his cause. The Allied nations of the 7th Coalition quickly mobilized their armies against him, Napoleon planned to attack these nations separately to preempt a united invasion of France. On June 16th, he drove the main Prussian army back at the Battle of Ligny, although he had to send one third of his army to prevent the Prussians from joining the coming battle. The British under Sir Arthur Wellington withdrew to the town of Waterloo, in modern-day Belgium, in order to avoid a battle with the French. However, once he learned that the Prussians would be able to reinforce him, he decided to give battle on an escarpment, a series of slopes, at Mont-Saint-Jean. On June 18th, Napoleon attacked the British forces defending the slopes, but his men failed to make any breakthroughs for most of the day. Throughout the day, Prussian forces arrived and attacked Napoleon’s right flank forcing the Emperor to deploy much of his reserves to hold them off. Towards the end of the day, the French did capture the orchard of La Hay Sainte, a critical part of the British line. However, the French lacked the necessary reserves to force the breach in Wellington’s lines. Napoleon ordered his Imperial Guard to assault Wellington’s lines through the gap created. However, the Guard, never before defeated in battle, were met with withering gunfire and broke, fleeing back towards Napoleon’s lines. The French center, right and left flanks all broke under British and Prussian assault and were forced to flee. In all, Napoleon suffered 41,000 killed, wounded, and missing out of an original force of 73,000 while the Allies suffered 24,000 casualties out of a force of 118,000.

The Battle of Waterloo ended forever Napoleon’s dream of a Europe dominated by France. However, it did not undo the changes Napoleon brought to all parts of the continent. Napoleon spread the liberal ideas of the revolution to the areas he conquered, and so created a desire for independence and self-government among many ethnic groups. Against these ideas would rise a reactionary movement that would try to stop the advance of liberalism. While Napoleon was in the end defeated in battle the ideas he spread would be victorious.

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