Every Thursday, we will use an event that occurred on this date to discuss an important moment in international history. This week: The Battle of Waterloo (1815)
When Napoleon returned from exile to Paris in March of 1815, European powers including Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia organized the Seventh Coalition against his attempt to reassert French military power. The momentous Battle of Waterloo soon followed, which marked the devastating and dramatic conclusion to the Napoleonic Wars.
In an effort to capture Brussels, Napoleon invaded Belgium and clashed with the Seventh Coalition near the village of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. The Duke of Wellington commanded the Anglo-allied forces, while Gebhard von Blücher led the Prussian armies. Wellington’s troops resisted Napoleon’s offensive, allowing the Prussian forces to mount a counteroffensive on Napoleon’s flank. The single-day battle resulted in over 50,000 casualties and a major loss for Napoleon’s military ambitions. When Napoleon retreated to Paris, he encountered massive resistance and abdicated in favor of his son, Napoleon II. The Seventh Coalition soon overran France and forced Napoleon into exile at St. Helena, where he lived until his death in 1821. The Battle of Waterloo, which facilitated Napoleon’s final imprisonment and the restoration of King Louis XVIII, contributed to the demise of the First French Empire.
Some historians suggest that the battle ranks among the most formative historical events of the nineteenth century. Although Waterloo clearly marked the end of Napoleon’s capacity to wage war, the decline of the First French Empire began long before the cannon fire erupted in Belgium. Before the battle, the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the First Treaty of Paris (1814) signaled a looming restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and controls over French military power. However, Waterloo clearly illustrated the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars and ushered an era of peace in Europe that endured until the outbreak of the World War I in 1914. Although attitudes toward the legacy of Waterloo remain mixed throughout Europe, few observers doubt that the event played an important role in charting the course of European and world history. Today, the term “Waterloo” endures in popular culture as an expression for total and final defeat.
June 18, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.