The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle and afterwards

What happened at Waterloo?

On returning to France, Napoleon began gathering troops. He invaded Belgium in June 1815 and immediately started battling the armies led by the British Duke of Wellington, the Dutch Prince William of Orange and the Prussian General Blücher.

After smaller skirmishes, it was time for a major battle. On 17 June, the Duke of Wellington took up a position near the town of Waterloo to block Napoleon’s advance on Brussels. He had 68,000 men, but Napoleon had 72,000. Wellington needed General Blücher’s Prussian troops to boost his numbers, but they were still 18 miles away. 

On the morning of 18 June, instead of rushing into battle, Napoleon held back until the wet ground had begun to dry out, hoping to make it easier to move the French cavalry horses and guns. Napoleon’s delay meant that the Prussian forces were able to arrive later that day. The French were then targeted on two fronts and had to retreat. Over 50,000 men are believed to have died on the battlefield and thousands more were seriously injured.

Napoleon abdicated after the battle. He then tried to escape to America, but was caught by the British and imprisoned on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Sea, where he died six years later.

Why was the battle so important for Britain?

  • Political stability – With the French royal family returned to the throne, the threat of revolution spreading to Britain was curtailed. The Duke of Wellington became a national hero and, in 1828, Prime Minister of England.

  • Lasting peace – After Waterloo there were no more wars in Europe for 99 years. This allowed Britain and other European nations to focus on internal growth.

  • Economy – Two decades of war had been expensive and the British government had increased taxes to pay for military costs. At a time of rising unemployment, high food prices and when one in six British men were serving in the armed forces, this had caused a great deal of poverty, even starvation and riots had taken place. Peace allowed the country time to recover.

  • Nationalism – The British victory at the Battle of Waterloo inspired artists and writers, as well as the military, and has often been presented as a key, positive moment in British history.


Abdicate - to give up a powerful position
Advance – to move forward or towards something
Cavalry – soldiers trained to fight on horseback
Curtailed – cut short 
Front – area in which armies face each other or fighting takes place
Inspire – to encourage someone to be creative or take action
Invade - when an armed force enters another country, aiming to conquer it
Skirmish – a brief fight
Stability – when different things are in balance

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Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Museum Discovery Centre |  Royal Armouries Museum | 
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