The road to Waterloo

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Forced to abdicate in April 1814, Napoleon spent nine months in exile on Elba studying developments in Europe. In February 1815 he made his escape, returning to France with a small force of 1,000 loyal men. General Ney, one of his former subordinates, set out with a large army to arrest him, promising to bring him back to Paris in an ‘iron cage’. Instead he switched sides when confronted by his former emperor. Within three weeks Napoleon was back in power in Paris, without a shot being fired. Branded an outlaw by the European powers, Napoleon recognised that war was inevitable. Faced with the prospect of waiting for the large British, Russian, Prussian and Austrian forces to gather and fighting a defensive war around Paris, he decided to take the battle to them. The plan was to strike out and engage with the Anglo-Allied army (which included Dutch, Germans and others) under Wellington, and the separate Prussian army, just north of France.
On 16 June 1815 Napoleon won his final military victory. At Ligny, a town in present-day Belgium, he defeated the Prussian army under General Gebhard von Blücher but was unable to achieve the knockout blow he desired. The same day Wellington took on a French army under Ney at Quatre Bras, having been completely outfoxed by Napoleon’s troop movements. It was there that Captain Edward Whitty, an Irishman, was killed by a bursting French shell—his head ‘literally blown to atoms’, according to one of his friends. Wellington won the field, narrowly, but was forced to retreat north towards Brussels upon hearing of the Prussian defeat. The small town of Waterloo, a key strategic location on the road to Brussels, now assumed a massive significance.

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