It was the bloodthirsty celebrity matchup the world had been waiting for. Not until El Alamein in 1942 would the world see a more anticipated and personalized battle than Waterloo. That earlier conflict, on 18 June, 1815, pitted the invincible French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte against Arthur Wellesley, the brilliant Duke of Wellington. For more than a decade these two had made life miserable for each other without ever coming onto the same field at the same time.
Napoleon was the effervescent flash and Wellington the dour, grumpy Englishman, so most of the betting naturally favored the Emperor. And even though Napoleon was missing some of his key players, he still had Marshal Michel Ney, one of the most celebrated cavalry commanders in history.
On that Sunday afternoon, Ney fought like a man unhinged–which he in fact was. He had broken his word of honor that he would never again take up arms for Napoleon (a felony that would cost him his life 175 days later in front of a French firing squad), so he had nothing to lose. Five horses were shot out from under him as he led one murderous charge after another against the artillery positioned on the ridge in these photos. When he ran out of horses, he led his troops on foot, shouting “Come see how a Marshal of France dies!”
The battle raged back and forth until the hitherto unbeaten French Imperial Guard shocked everyone by inexplicably breaking and fleeing. Wellington leapt up in the stirrups of his horse Copenhagen and waved his troops forward for the final onslaught. By the time the fighting petered out, the ground lay hidden under a carpet of 48,000 dead and dying bodies.
Napoleon was finished—he had “met his Waterloo,” as the famous proverb went, and was exiled to St. Helena, where the British might or might not have poisoned him. The French Revolution was once and for all buried underneath the universally despised Bourbon monarchy and its obese, gout-plagued King. Ney was under arrest, and Wellington was on his way to dominating the British political scene.
One winner was Wellington’s horse Copenhagen, who spent the rest of his 28 years gracefully chomping on apples fed to him by adoring fans. Another was a London merchant named Thomas Cook, who had started a business shipping British officers’ belongings to Belgium for the campaign. After the war, Cook expanded his operation to transport battle buffs to Waterloo and, in the process, invented the modern tourist industry.
The battlefield, a short bicycle ride away from my childhood home, still hosts enough British tourists to keep the local fish & chips industry in business. But the cast-iron British Lion with its imperial foot on the globe has long since faded into the mists of history.