The 18th of June, 1815 was a very bloody Sunday. Captain John Kincaid, a Scottish Captain in the (95th) Rifle Brigade, would later recall; “I had never thought there would be a battle where everyone was killed. This seemed to be it.” The Battle of Waterloo was fought on this date.
Napoleon had an army of 74,000 Frenchmen, marching on Brussels and dreaming of resurgent Empire after his escape from exile. Allied against him on that day were those forces nearest to hand - 22,000 British and 45,000 Dutch and German troops under the Duke of Wellington, the Prince of Orange and Prussian Marshall Blücher. At the end of the day, 47,000 of these combatants (33%) would be casualties - the price of putting down the threat of Napoleon for a second and final time. The impact of Waterloo rippled across the next century, its myths and lessons profoundly influencing European and American concepts of war and tactics and belief in what heroic leadership and masses of troops could accomplish. The Guns of 1914 and the hyper-industrialization of warfare would ultimately shatter those assumptions, but the modern memory of Waterloo is still steeped in the old romantic ideal, with the name of the Battle itself synonymous with a decisive and final defeat.
The 100 Days campaign that culminated at Waterloo lends itself to viewing through the classic tropes of heroic myth, a tradition familiar to many of its participants and early chroniclers. The old enemy rises from defeat and catches the war-weary victors unprepared. The thin red line of the British squares breaks the thundering cavalry just as English longbows and sharpened stakes brought down the flower of the French nobility 400 years earlier at Agincourt. Lord Uxbridge's stoic remark; "My God, sir, I've lost my leg" was the epitome of the English stiff upper lip, and the destruction of the French Old Guard the belle ideal of the loyal imperial bodyguard. The forlorn hope, the outnumbered defenders of the doomed outpost, the imperial eagle standards touched by the Emperor's own hand: all were part of the narrative.
The uniforms of the soldiers themselves were the pinnacle of form over function, as exaggerated as stag horn or peacock's tail. French historian Henry Houssaye describes the parade of the French cavalry on the march before Waterloo:
"It was a kaleidoscope of vivid hues and metallic flashes. After the chasseurs, wearing bright green jackets, with facings of purple, yellow or scarlet, came the hussars, with dolmans, pelisses, breeches a la hongroise, plumes upon their shakos, all varying in color with each regiment...Then passed the dragoons with brass casques over turban-helmets of tiger skin, white shoulder belts crossed over a green coat with facings of red or yellow, long guns at their saddle bows and bumping against their stiff boots; the cuirassiers wearing short coats with imperial blue collars, white breeches, top boots, steel cuirasses and helmets, with crests of copper and floating horse hair manes; the carabiniers, giants of six feet and clad in white, with breastplates of gold and tall helmets with red cords - like those worn by the heroes of antiquity." - quoted In D. Horwarth: Waterloo: Day of Battle (1968) pg 48.
All this romantic dash and glory belies the reality of the scale of butchery and waste of life wrought by the Napoleonic Wars. The massed columns of the French - their drummers beating the relentless advance and their throats raised with "Vive L'Empereur'" - were human battering rams designed to break the enemy by overwhelming concentrated force but vulnerable to massed fire themselves. Napoleon was a gunner and his use of smooth bore artillery was devastating. Not only combatants but civilians suffered the ravages of war; the Peninsular War in particular makes Sherman's march through Georgia look like a holiday outing. Between 1799-1815, the most conservative estimate of casualties lists 2,500,000 military dead and missing, with at least 1,000,000 civilians killed in Europe and in French overseas colonies. The number of wounded could easily be four times these numbers. There would not be a comparable lost of life in a European War for 100 years.
Napoleonic tactics held sway long into the 19th century and their influence on the conduct of the American Civil War in particular was profound. Some of Napoleon's innovations - concentration, maneuverability, organization in divisions - were highly applicable to this conflict, but the minié ball and rifled barrels had disastrous results for massed infantry in the Napoleonic mold. Civil War casualties were so high in large part because tactics had not caught up with the technology of the battlefield. The same was true of the Great War, which began with mounted cavalry and red legged French and ended with the horror of trenches, gas, tanks and long range artillery. Napoleonic concepts died hard.
Lord Wellington demurred at his Prussian ally's suggestion that their great, costly victory be called La Belle Alliance after the name of the inn that had served as Napoleon's headquarters during the battle. The little Belgian village to the north of the British defensive position had a vaguely English-sounding name and Wellington had well-honed political instincts and a nose for the historic record. A study of the battle by Clausewitz, chief of staff of the III corps under Blucher, was published posthumously in 1835 under the title Der Feldzug von 1815 in Frankreich but an English translation was suppressed by the Duke of Wellington because some of its revelations were embarrassing to him and the accepted British version of the campaign. The English-speaking world remembers Waterloo as England's victory, even though British forces made up just a third of the alliance that defeated Napoleon on that bloody day in June. Still, for tourists and residents alike, the battlefield is all about Napoleon.