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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

(18 June 1815)
Defeat of the French army by *Wellington and the Prussian marshal *Blücher, bringing to an end the *Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon escaped from Elba, the allied nations (Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia) agreed that each would put 150,000 men into the field to suppress him. The British and Prussians were the first to mobilize their troops in Belgium, and Napoleon decided to attack them before the arrival of the Russians and Austrians.

He marched north from Paris with about 124,000 men, the majority of them veterans of many battles. The allied forces were larger but relatively inexperienced. Blücher's army of Prussians, encamped southeast of Brussels, numbered about 120,000. Wellington's forces, occupying Brussels itself and the areas to the south and southwest, amounted to some 94,000 men; these were made up about equally of British, Dutch-Belgian and German troops. Napoleon's strategy was to advance directly upon Brussels, separating the two allied armies and hoping to contain one while destroying the other.

Quatre Bras, a crossroads 35km/22m south of Brussels, was a pivotal point of communication between the British and Prussian armies and therefore of great strategic importance to Napoleon. On June 16 he instructed Marshal Ney to capture it from the forward troops of Wellington's army; the battle continued all day, with heavy losses on both sides, but by nightfall the British still held Quatre Bras. Further east, on that same day, Napoleon attacked and defeated Blücher's army at Ligny. During June 17 Blücher's Prussians withdrew northwards in disarray, but Napoleon failed to pursue them effectively. Wellington, hearing of their defeat, ordered his own forces to withdraw from Quatre Bras and to occupy a strong defensive position on a ridge at Waterloo, 20km/12m south of Brussels.

The decisive battle on June 18 centred on the French attempts to drive Wellington's forces off that ridge. When the day started Wellington had in position about 68,000 men and 156 guns; Napoleon had some 72,000 men and 246 guns. The French army was likely to suffer heavy losses attacking a defensive position with successive waves of infantry and cavalry, but they had a well-deserved reputation as the best troops in Europe. Napoleon would certainly have won the day but for the arrival in the afternoon of Blücher's army, regrouped after its defeat and now attacking the French right wing from the northeast.

By early evening the French were in flight. Wellington and Blücher met at 9.15 p.m. and each congratulated the other as the victor. The day's dead numbered 25,000 French, 7000 Prussians and some 15,000 from the combined British forces. Two remarks of Wellington's, much quoted later, testify to the narrowness of the victory. 'Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let's see who will pound longest', he had said during the battle; and he later described it as 'the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life', adding 'By God! I don't think it would have done if I had not been there'.

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