2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – the final undoing of brilliant French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Waterloo was one of the most decisive battles ever fought. It was a crucial event in European political and social history, ending over twenty years of conflict and bringing one of Europe’s most extraordinary and challenging figures to his knees.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) rose to prominence as a brilliant young general during the late 1790s. This portrait shows him in 1802 at one of his finest moments; he had become First Consul in 1799, and in 1804 was to be crowned Emperor of the French. By the end of 1805 he had gained control of most of Europe.
Lead up to the battle
The beginning of the end for Napoleon came with his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. By the end of 1813 his armies had been defeated both by a coalition of nations at the Battle of Leipzig and by the Duke of Wellington’s forces in Spain. He abdicated in April 1814 and was exiled to Elba, but in March 1815 he was back in Paris and ready to confront the powers of Europe.
This print shows Napoleon dragged off by urchins to a boat which a devil will row to Elba. In reality he was treated with dignity after abdicating on 6 April 1814, and retained his title as Emperor.
Napoleon left Elba on 26 February 1815 on his brig Inconstant. On shore, a troop of soldiers rushes to greet Napoleon, while in the distance two Frenchmen carry off the fat gouty King Louis.
Napoleon appears anxious as he stands on a balcony, looking across Paris. He is accompanied by the Devil and Death. A mob carrying severed heads on pikes fills the street, creating an ominous atmosphere.
Preparing for War (1815) by George CruikshankBritish Museum
Napoleon is mounted on a snorting charger to the top right, where the 'Dogs of War' are let loose.
The Battle of Waterloo took place on 18 June 1815 in the countryside near Brussels, just a few miles south of the village of Waterloo. The British were expecting support from Prussia, which was delayed due to mud and floods, meaning Napoleon very nearly broke through the British line before the Prussians intervened. Having gambled all on this last attempt, Napoleon’s defeat was catastrophic.
The immediate aftermath
Just a couple of days after the event Thomas Stoney created studies of the battlefield illustrating the most famous sites of the battle – Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte – and also rare views of the buildings at Quatra Bras. A shocking panorama of the battlefield, it is littered with unburied naked corpses, left to wash away into the ditches as often time was taken to only bury the bodies of officers.
Panorama of the Battlefield of Quatre Bras (1815-06-20) by Thomas StoneyBritish Museum
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was greeted almost universally with relief: the war that had lasted for more than twenty years was finally over. But in Britain triumphalism was mixed with anxiety over the high price of war and sorrow for those lost. Napoleon escaped after the battle, abdicated a second time and made his way to Rochefort, hoping to sail for the United States.
The wild crowd at this exhibition seems to have forgotten the horror of the battlefield just six months earlier, and only a Frenchman in the background feels any sadness, weeping unrestrainedly as he looks at a bust of Napoleon.
Many Frenchmen were pleased to see the back of Bonaparte, who represented eternal war for them just as much as he did for the British. In this print Wellington and Blücher dispose of the former emperor. Napoleon begs for his life, fearing suffocation in a dustbin.
The end of Napoleon
Realising an escape to the United States would be impossible, Napoleon surrendered on 15 July, giving himself up to the captain of the Bellerophon, in hope of asylum and retirement in Britain. His only glimpse of Britain was from the deck of the ship and on 8 August he sailed for the remote island of St Helena in the south Atlantic where he spent the last six years of his life in exile.
The concept for this online exhibition stems from Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon an exhibition held at the British Museum, London from 5 February to 16 August 2015.
An exhibition catalogue written by curators Sheila O’Connell and Tim Clayton is available from the British Museum shop online.