Catch the Eurotunnel to Calais and drive to: Waterloo
Lunch in France
Visit: Quatre Bras Battlefield
Stay in Waterloo
Dinner at the Hotel
The Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815
On the afternoon of June 17, heavy rains began and continued into the night, but the morning of Sunday, June 18, arrived sunny and clear. On the rolling plateaus to the south of Waterloo, near Mont St. Jean, the French (some 72,000 strong) and Anglo-Dutch (68,000) armies were encamped some 1,500 yards apart. In this area the land masks hollows and ravines where forces could be hidden until an enemy is close enough to be confronted by troops that seemed to rise from the very earth before them. It was land well suited to the tactics the Duke of Wellington had perfected in Spain.
He placed his reserves and part of his main force behind the slopes of the plateau he had chosen to make his stand on; they would be concealed from view and largely protected from artillery. To the west, forward of his right flank, he dispatched troops to the Chateau de Groumont (Hougomont). It was a brick-and-stone redoubt, fully enclosed and further protected by ditches, an orchard and hedges. Directly to his front he sent another force to a similar mini-fortress, La Haye Sainte. No similar fortifications existed on his left, or eastern flank, though there were smaller strongholds scattered about. This was the direction from which the Prussians would be arriving to reinforce Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch force, so he was less concerned about his left.
Napoleon’s favoured tactic was envelopment, swinging around his enemy’s flanks, but the heavy rains had left the low ground muddy between the plateau where his forces awaited their orders and the plateau where the Anglo-Dutch had their line. The mud would slow his cavalry and artillery in any envelopment attempt. He chose, therefore, to make a direct attack on Wellington’s centre. The mud also caused him to delay his main attack from 9:00 a.m. to noon, to allow the ground more time to dry.
He ordered General H. C. M. J. Reille to make an attack in the direction of Groumont (Hougomont). It was intended to be a limited, supporting attack launched a half-hour before the main effort, but the commander of Reille’s lead division, after driving the enemy from some woods around the chateau, decided to assault the chateau itself. Both sides reinforced, and the fight drew in nearly half of Reille’s corps in a battle for a position of questionable value to the French; Napoleon had not ordered that it be taken.
South of where the fighting was taking place, Grouchy had been ordered to seize Wavre and block the Prussians, but he moved slowly, and two corps had already passed through the town by the time his Frenchmen arrived. However, the same mud that had caused Napoleon to favour a direct assault over an enveloping manoeuvre also slowed the Prussian march to reinforce the Anglo-Dutch at Waterloo. Blücher, bruised and aching from his horse falling on him during the charge at Quatre Bras, urged his men on with the plea, “Forward, lads! I have promised my brother Wellington. You don’t want to cause me to break my promise, do you?”
Wellington, as the day wore on, was muttering, “Give me Blücher or give me night.”
Knowing that the two enemy forces would soon unite, Napoleon faced the choice of withdrawing to fight another day on ground of his choosing, or commit the rest of his force and hope to break Wellington’s line before Blücher’s full force arrived. Weighing against a retreat was the knowledge that an army of 250,000 Austrians were advancing toward Paris, and Napoleon felt that retreating would cost him support of the French people. He chose to decide the issue there, on the rolling plateaus around Mont St. Jean, south of Waterloo.
For a half-hour he bombarded his enemy with 80 guns, but because Wellington had positioned much of his force on the downside of slopes away from the French artillery, the bombardment’s effect was diminished.
D’Erlon’s I Corps, which had spent most of June 16 marching and countermarching between the fights at Ligny and Quatre Bras, now slogged through wet cornfields that crowded their columns together. A Belgian brigade near the strongpoint of La Haye Sainte fled, and D’Erlon’s men came on until British infantry at a hedge-lined road staggered them with a volley, and a cavalry attack drove the French soldiers back.
Wellington reinforced La Haye Sainte. Around 4:00 p.m. both sides began heavy artillery bombardments. By this time, Wellington’s centre began to disintegrate under the repeated French attacks and started to fall back. Marshal Ney, believing the Anglo-Dutch line was faltering, ordered a cavalry attack unsupported by infantry or artillery. The horsemen thundered forward, the ground shaking beneath the hooves of their mounts, crested a hill, and were greeted by British infantry formed in a patchwork of squares, the most effective defensive formation against cavalry. The French swept around the squares, trying to find a way to penetrate them, but momentum was broken. A counterattack by British cavalry drove the Frenchmen back, but reinforced, they came on again. Four times they charged, and four times they were repulsed.
By 6:00 La Haye Sainte had fallen at last; Reille’s men had Groumont (Hougomont) more or less surrounded, and a powerful attack against Wellington’s centre might have broken through, but the Prussians had begun arriving around 4:00 and threatened the French rear by assaulting Plancenoit, a sizeable village with a stone church and stone-walled cemetery that could serve as strongpoints for either side. Napoleon directed the corps of the Count of Lobau, reinforced by two battalions of the Guard, in a counterattack that gradually forced the Prussians back, but the counterattack had taken 10,000 French away from the central battle area, where they could have been used to break through Wellington’s weakened centre.
Had Grouchy not followed the letter of his orders and marched to the sound of the guns, as some of his subordinates encouraged him to do, Blücher’s men would have been caught between two strong forces, and that could have swung the day’s advantage to Napoleon. Grouchy, however, was not a particularly imaginative commander, and existing military practices weighed in favour of staying where he had been ordered to go, so he spent the afternoon confronting less than 20,000 men of the Prussian III Corps around Wavre with his 30,000-plus force.
While Napoleon’s attention was focused on the Prussian threat to his rear, the impulsive, hot-headed Ney took command of the rest of the Guard—some of the finest infantry in the world at the time—and led them in a futile attack against the strongest point of Wellington’s line. Finally, the French right flank caved, taking any remaining hope that Napoleon could avoid defeat on this day marked by mud, incomplete information, indecision, and impetuous orders that threw away French lives to little or no advantage.
Still, Napoleon remained calm. He ordered what was left of the Old Guard to form squares across the road south of La Haye Sainte while he withdrew his battered army. Even when the Guard ran out of ammunition, they held to their posts as their beloved emperor had commanded.
Breakfast at the Hotel
Drive to: Battlefields of Waterloo
Guided tour for the Battlefield including:
- Hougoumont Farm
- La Haye Sainte
- La Belle Alliance
Picnic lunch on the Battlefield
- The Butte du Lion
- Napoleon’s OP
Return to your hotel
Dinner in Waterloo
Breakfast at the Hotel
Drive to: Bruges
Bruges, is distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. Its port, Zeebrugge, is an important centre for fishing and European trade. In the city centre’s Burg square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall) has an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt square features a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and 83m tower with panoramic views.
Free time in Bruges
Lunch in Bruges
Guided tour: The history of Bruges along the waterways.
One of the best ways to see Bruges is from the water via the expansive network of canals. The water flows into places and past landmarks that can’t be accessed from the street, bringing you up close to some of the town’s most incredible sites that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Stay at: Grand Hotel Casselbergh. This hotel housed the future Charles II of England during his exile in the 1650s: an elegant stone plaque on an outside corner commemorates the founding of the Grenadier Guards here in 1656.
Dinner in Bruges
Walking guide tour of Bruges.
Lunch in Bruges
Return home via the Eurotunnel