The Battle of Waterloo was one of the defining moments in European history. To help everyone understand the importance of the event, we've summarised the Waterloo story.
What role did your ancestors play? Find out in our Waterloo records, and share your own stories below.
In 1814, Napoleon, Emperor of France, escaped from exile on the Isle of Elba and marched on Paris, intent on reclaiming his throne from King Louis XVIII. European powers including Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia didn't share Napoleon's enthusiasm to see him back in power, and declared war, standing together as the Seventh Coalition. Napoleon realised that his best chance of success was to move before the coalition could fully mobilise, and quickly committed his forces to attack the existing coalition armies.
On the 18th of June, 1815, the armies of Napoleon and Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington met near Waterloo (in present day Belgium). The ensuing battle came to be a defining moment in European history, and the end of Napoleon's reign as Emperor of the French.
The Battle of Waterloo, Jan Willem Pieneman, 1824 (Wellington centre)
Waterloo was the battle that brought the War of the Seventh Coalition to a close. It was fought between war-hardened French troops – mostly volunteers loyal to Napoleon – and a coalition of armies that comprised the British, Dutch, Hanoverians, Prussians (commanded by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher) as well as troops from Nassau and Brunswick.
Although Napoleon's soldiers were outnumbered by the Coalition (73,000 facing 118,000), they were all veterans of at least one campaign, while Wellington's troops were, in his own words, 'very weak and ill-equipped', with the majority of Britain's experienced troops already having been sent to the United States to fight the War of 1812. Wellington's cavalry was similarly inexperienced, with a severe shortage of heavy cavalry to call upon.
Prussian Attack on Plancenoit, Adolf Northern
In addition, Blücher's 40,000 Prussian troops had been routed by Napoleon's army two days previously, and so would not march into battle until the early evening, prompting Wellington to portentously say that 'night or the Prussians must come'.
Come the Prussians did, however, and by 8.30 that evening the French were defeated after a battle that Wellington would describe as 'the nearest run things you ever saw in your life'. 44,000 men and 12,000 horses had been killed or wounded. Napoleon surrendered almost a month later, aboard the HMS Bellerophon on July 15th.
Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, Sir William Quiller Orchardson, 1880
The legacy of Waterloo was decades of peace in Europe and the end of the Napoleonic era. Today, the Belgian battlefield is home to the Lion's Mound, erected by King William I of the Netherlands, marking the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded during the battle.
At home in Britain, Waterloo is still part of the fabric of daily life, with a train station, streets, pubs and parks named after the battle and combatants, not least Wellington himself. Here at Findmypast, we have huge collections of records containing those that fought at Waterloo and during the Napoleonic Wars, including:
- British Army Service Records, 1760-1915
- Waterloo Medal Roll 1815, containing details on the 37,000 men who received the Waterloo Medal
- Waterloo Roll Call, with details of the men present at the Battle of Waterloo
- Napoleonic War Records 1775-1817, including regimental indexes and attestions
- British Army Kilmainham Pensioners, 1783-1822, providing information on the Napoleonic War soldiers who were pensioned in Ireland
- Contemporary personal accounts and reports in our newspaper archive
Why not search our Waterloo records, and discover the role your family members played at this decisive moment in modern European history? To get started, read our guide on starting your Waterloo journey with Findmypast.