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A beginner’s guide to the Battle of Waterloo

William Sadler II’s “The Battle of Waterloo.” (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

“Emma” isn’t the only thing celebrating an anniversary this year: 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo — and the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, the theme of our ball this year. We’ll talk in more detail about the battle and the ball in one of the panels at this June’s Jane Austen Summer Program. But before you get to Chapel Hill, here’s a Waterloo 101:

Remind me again what was the Battle of Waterloo:

It was the last stand for Napoleon, who had returned to power: The battle effectively ended the Napoleonic wars, more than 10 years of recurrent fighting in Europe against the French.

Who fought in the battle?

About 105,000 French soldiers in total, led by — who else? — Napoleon Bonaparte (and his generals) vs. the English, led by the Duke of Wellington. The English brought along some friends —  Belgian, German and Dutch outfits — putting their numbers at about 68,000. Also on the side of the English were an additional 45,000 Prussians, led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher.

Where IS Waterloo, anyway?

The battleground is about three miles outside the town of Waterloo, which is about 10 miles south of Brussels in Belgium. That’s a little more than 200 miles slightly southeast of London.

larger map

On June 18, 1815, the opposing armies fought from late morning through the evening. Key tactical errors in communication and leadership — and Napoleon’s decision to delay his main attack — led to advances by the Prussians and English allies, ultimately forcing the French Imperial Guard to retreat. Casualties on both sides numbered in the tens of thousands.

Then what happened?

Defeated, Napoleon went into exile on St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died a few years later.

So what does the Duchess of Richmond’s ball have to do with Waterloo?

“The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball” by Robert Alexander Hillingford.

Three days before Waterloo, the Duchess of Richmond hosted a ball in Brussels, the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras. Her husband, the fourth Duke of Richmond, was in charge of a reserve force protecting Brussels in case Bonaparte invaded.

Many of Wellington’s top brass were there. The following morning, officers were called to action because Bonaparte’s forces were approaching — the British even going into battle in the same clothes they danced in.

What was so special about the ball though?

William Heath's "Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny" (1818) depicts the Duke of Wellington at the ball receiving word that the French have arrived.
William Heath’s “Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny” (1818) depicts the Duke of Wellington at the ball receiving word that the French have arrived.

What’s been called “the most famous ball in history” was meant to show the French that the British were keeping calm and carrying on … with partying, at least.  The ball is also one of the most painted balls in history, with works by such artists as Robert Alexander Hillingford, William Heath and Henry Nelson O’Neil.

Henry O’Neil’s “Before Waterloo” (1868) shows officers leaving the Duchess of Richmond’s ball.

For more information on the Battle of Waterloo, visit:

For information about the Duchess of Richmond Ball, go to:

Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Follow @nextjen on Twitter. And remember to like Jane Austen Summer Program on Facebook and follow @JASPhotline on Twitter.


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