Napoleon Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo

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  • 0:02 Napoleon Returns
  • 1:17 The Emperor's Plan
  • 2:16 Waterloo
  • 3:35 Defeat!
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the return of Napoleon Bonaparte to France on March 1, 1815, his hundred-day reign, and his downfall at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

Napoleon Returns

After his defeat in April of 1814, deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte lived in exile on the island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy. Napoleon was restless: he didn't like what was going on in France. The new king, Louis XVIII, was a bit of a bumbler and rather arrogant, and the French people didn't like him very much.

Napoleon chafed at his confinement, longing to return to his throne and restore France to glory. He began to make some plans. At the end of February, in 1815, Napoleon put his plans into action. He left Elba and arrived in France on March 1. It didn't take long for the French army to rally behind their old commander; they were not fond of their new king.

In fact, when confronted by a group of soldiers sent out to capture him, Napoleon proudly challenged them saying, 'Soldiers, if there is one among you who wants to kill his general, his Emperor, here I am.' The men responded, 'Long live the Emperor! Long live the Emperor!' With the army's assistance, Napoleon reached Paris on March 20 and resumed his reign as emperor of France. Louis XVIII fled to Belgium.

The Emperor's Plan

The rest of Europe shuddered at Napoleon's return, knowing that it would upset the balance of power they were trying so hard to establish. Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria formed the Seventh Coalition to stop Napoleon and remove him from power. British troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian troops under General Gebhard von Blucher soon entered Belgium and prepared for a fight.

Napoleon was monitoring the situation closely, and he decided that the best way to defeat his enemies would be to employ the old method of divide and conquer. He would trounce the British and Prussians separately before they had a chance to unite their forces. The emperor's plan seemed successful, at least at first: French troops marched into Belgium and forced a Prussian retreat at Ligny on June 16, 1815, effectively preventing Blucher from meeting up with Wellington.


Napoleon then turned his attention to the British, and the stage was set for a showdown at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had about 72,000 men to Wellington's 68,000 soldiers. On June 18, the two armies faced each other across the battlefield, but the morning passed without any fighting. Napoleon hesitated to begin his attack because the wet ground prevented his artillery from moving into a solid position. His delay helped his enemy, for Prussian reinforcements were already on their way.

At about 11:30 AM, Napoleon gave the order to begin an artillery barrage. By this time, Wellington's troops were snugly burrowed behind a ridge right in front of their battle line. The French fire didn't affect them much at all. Then the French infantry charged. Wellington met them with a counter-charge, and the French staggered back in confusion.

By this time, the first ranks of the Prussian army were beginning to arrive. Napoleon knew he had to take drastic measures, so he sent in the French cavalry under Marshal Michel Ney. The horsemen charged the British line again and again, but Wellington's men held fast and nearly destroyed the entire French cavalry. Prussian soldiers began to emerge from the smoke covering the battlefield.


Napoleon had one last chance to win the battle. He deployed his famous Imperial Guard, the toughest soldiers in the French army. They were the brave men who never retreated; enemies cowered before them; if anyone could save the day, they were the ones. Wellington watched them approach. He waited until they closed in and then ordered his troops to fire. About 400 Frenchmen fell, and the famous Guard drew back in panic.

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