In March 1815, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on Elba and launched a military campaign which would end at the Battle of Waterloo. The European allies quickly assembled their armies and prepared to resume the war. Napoleon, with his Grande Armée, resolved to attack Wellington’s Allied army, and marched into Belgium. On 16 June at Ligny the French drove the Prussians off the battlefield.
Wellington established a strong defensive position defending a high ridge near the village of Waterloo, blocking the road to stop Napoleon’s advance towards Brussels. The villages of Papelotte on the left, La Haye Sainte in the centre and Hougoumont Farm on the right, formed the key positions of this defensive line. Waterloo was fought within a remarkably small area. From North to South it extended less than four miles and rather less in width. In this restricted area there were deployed more than four hundred pieces of artillery and over 140,000 men.
It had rained heavily during the night of 17 June and as a result the French attack did not begin until 11am, with the bombardment of Hougoumont Farm. This was followed at midday by an infantry assault which began the day-long struggle for the farm buildings. At about 1.30pm French guns were brought forward opposite La Haye Sainte, held by the King’s German Legion, and 17,000 infantry began the attack on the centre and left. This assault continued intermittently for the rest of the day until the Legion ran out of ammunition and was finally overwhelmed.
Napoleon now mounted an attack against the British lines drawn up along the ridge, each assault was repulsed. Lord Uxbridge, Wellington’s cavalry commander, had two brigades of heavy cavalry behind the ridge. The Union Brigade under Ponsonby and the Household Brigade commanded by Somerset. The brigades charged and hit the French infantry and Cuirassiers cutting through the cavalry and retreating infantry. Carried away by their initial success, the heavy brigades failed to rally and continued towards the French positions. By this time their horses were blown and a swift retribution followed in the shape of a counter-attack by the French lancers.
As part of Vandeleur’s cavalry brigade, the 12th and 16th Light Dragoons had been ordered against the flank of the retreating infantry, riding down infantry squares and squadrons of fleeing cavalry. The 12th broke one the infantry squares but before it could reform, it was attacked by a French infantry reserve and a regiment of lancers. As a result they lost the strength of an entire squadron in killed, wounded or captured. Vandeleur then recalled his brigade and ordered them to assist Ponsonby’s “Union” brigade of heavy cavalry who were being attacked by French lancers and chasseurs
The remnants of 12th and the 16th charged forward down the slope into a smoke filled valley below. The battlefield descended into a series of individual combats as English light dragoon fought the French lancer, each isolated from his comrades by the smoke, noise and general confusion. The French eventually broke away allowing the survivors of the Union brigade and Vandeleur’s brigade to withdraw to their former positions. Wellington’s army held out long enough for the beaten Prussians to regroup and attack the French again, uniting the Allied armies. At about 8.00pm, Wellington ordered the whole line to advance. The two light brigades, followed by the cheering infantry, immediately charged the recoiling Imperial Guard. A panic now seized the French, and they were chased off the field. By 8.30pm the battle was won, Napoleon was defeated, “but it was a close run thing”. In one day at Waterloo, Napoleon’s dream of French domination over Europe was finally crushed.