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Napoleon's Waterloo

Waterloo is a small town a few miles south of Brussels, Belgium. It's an unassuming place, with a church, a few inns, and some homes surrounded by old stone farmhouses and lots of open fields. Those farms and fields are its claim to fame, because one of the most famous battles in history was fought on them.

The Battle of Waterloo, as it has come to be known, is always included on lists of battles that changed the course of history. Napoleon was considered one of the greatest generals ever, yet he is often defined by this one terrific loss at the end of his career. The word has entered our language: You probably know what it means when we say someone has met their Waterloo, even if you don't know anything about the actual battle.

Feeling the weight of Waterloo

For Napoleon, Waterloo was the final struggle against the forces that battled him since the very beginning of his career. For almost 20 years, he had fought various coalitions of British, Austrian, Russian, and Prussian armies, and the usual suspects were at it again. Only this time, it was to be for all the marbles — not just to determine whether Napoleon would stay in power. The outcome of the battle would go a long way in determining whether the move toward political liberalization started by the French Revolution and continued by Napoleon would continue or be greatly slowed.

If Napoleon had won, perhaps the European Union would have happened a great deal sooner. Or perhaps not. That's the frustrating but fun aspect of history: You can never be sure what would have happened if one thing (like a battle) had turned out differently.

In preparing for the battle, Napoleon appeared to make all the right moves, both on the diplomatic and military fronts. He started strong. But in the end he had too little, too late.

Organizing an army and seeking peace

After Napoleon entered Paris and reclaimed power without firing a shot, events unfolded quickly. The Coalition that was allied against him was going to act fast to get rid of him once and for all. The Russian and Austrian armies were mobilizing in the east while the British and Prussian armies were very near the French border, in Belgium. To allow all four armies to act in concert against the French would be a disaster. But if he could pick them off one by one, perhaps he could succeed.

The Austrians and Russians were fairly far away, so for the moment, Napoleon could ignore them. The British and Prussians were another matter. The British, under the Duke of Wellington, were hanging out in Brussels, with the officers attending parties and the men sitting around grumbling. The Prussians were some miles away, also biding their time but (being Prussians) without the parties.

Napoleon really didn't want war. He was old and fat and would have been content to just rule France (okay, and maybe Belgium), bringing reforms and enjoying life with his young wife, Marie Louise, and their son, both of whom he adored. But even his father-in-law, Emperor Francis I of Austria, was against him, preventing his wife and son from joining him in Paris. So war it would be.

Napoleon took several critical steps to try to prepare for (or in some cases, avoid) fighting the Coalition forces:

  • He sent an envoy to the Austrians asking for peace, which was ignored.
  • He wrote a personal letter to the Prince Regent of England asking for peace. It was returned, unopened.
  • He increased the army from 200,000 to 300,000 just by inspiring many of his old veterans to reenlist.
  • He called up the National Guard to defend the homeland.
  • He fortified Paris with troops and artillery.
  • He asked his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, to send his wife and son back to him, with the possibility that they would rule France if he had to abdicate again. In this request, he was also ignored.
  • He secured the support of the legislative body by agreeing to a new, more liberal constitution written by some of his old liberal foes.

All this was not enough. Armies and countries need leaders, so he had to recruit the best and brightest and do so quickly. Naturally, he first turned to those who had been with him before his abdication.

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