Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo—here’s what went wrong

Napoleon made a bold return from exile in 1815 only to lose his last shot at empire in a crushing defeat delivered by the Duke of Wellington and the combined forces of Europe.

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Ernest Crofts.
Photograph by Christie's Images, Bridgeman/ACI

In the early 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte stormed across Europe, swallowing up territory for his French Empire and challenging the supremacy of Britain on the seas. From 1804 to 1814, the Napoleonic Wars raged, as Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia all fought to hold back the fiery emperor of France. In 1814 it looked as though they had succeeded. Napoleon had abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba. In France the Bourbon king Louis XVIII had been restored to power.

Then, in late February 1815, Europe received a shock: The audacious Napoleon had left Elba and set sail for France. It is hard to overestimate the dismay and fear provoked by this news. Napoleon’s banishment the year before had been achieved after years of momentous and costly battles on land and at sea. His escape, many feared, would restart French imperial expansion, and once more plunge Europe into war. (See also: How the Battle of Waterloo changed the world.)

In spring 1815 British, Prussian, Austrian, and Russian forces rushed to regroup as Napoleon started mobilizing his army. The countdown had begun to a last epic showdown. This time, Napoleon faced a coalition of nations led by one of his most skilled British adversaries, the Duke of Wellington. Despite being on opposite sides, both men had shaped, and been shaped by, the extraordinary events that had transformed Europe in the late 18th century.

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