The Battle of Waterloo was one of France’s biggest losses in history, preventing the powerful Napoleon Bonaparte from continuing to tear through his European rivals. Although he successfully rose to power and expanded his reign throughout several parts of Europe, the Battle of Waterloo brought his empire to a sudden and destructive end. So, how was Napoleon’s 23-year rise to power destroyed by a single battle?

A power-hungry military man

Napoleon Bonaparte was power-hungry from a young age. Once he joined France’s military, he began to rapidly ascend to power. The French Revolution proved beneficial to Napoleon’s ascension, as he began climbing to the top of the political ladder, as well. It gave him a chance to prove himself as a more-than-decent leader and brilliant military commander. In 1796, he led a successful military campaign against Austria, one of France’s rivals, in Italy. He gained the respect of many military leaders and was promoted in his ranks. Although he failed two separate invasions of both Egypt and Syria after his promotions, he returned to France with a hunger for domination and leadership.

With his military talents and drive for power, Napoleon overthrew France’s previous leader in 1799 and took over the political leadership of France. He eventually declared himself the emperor of France in 1804. After an (unnecessarily luxurious) crowning ceremony, Napoleon called on France’s military to begin to seize sections of western and central Europe for the French. Due to his expansive military skills and abilities to strategize, much of his early military campaign was frighteningly successful. However, despite Napoleon’s military victories, he began to face trouble when pressing for land in Russia.

Napoleon’s plans to take over Europe

During a devastating invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon’s men dropped like flies and they were forced to hastily retreat from battle. The Battle of Leipzig followed in 1814, during which a coalition of a number of France’s rivals, including Russia, defeated Napoleon’s troops a second time. After the capture of Paris by coalition forces, Napoleon was forced to give up the throne he overthrew. He was exiled to a small island near Italy called Elba. However, he didn’t remain on the island for long. Instead, he steamed in his anger for nearly a year, then busted off of Elba. He returned to an adoring audience of citizens in France, who still held him in high regards. He took political control of France back a second time after the cowardly new king, Louis XVIII, ran away from the furious Napoleon. Napoleon came back into power even more passionate than before…and he was intent on picking up where he left off.

Napoleon knew that rivals such as Russia, Austria, and Britain would likely hear about his return to the throne and act quickly to shut down any attacks from him and his armies. Napoleon decided to organize a new, powerful set of troops before France’s rivals could organize and strike against him. Before any of France’s rival countries could fully prepare for war, Napoleon conducted devastating campaigns against the allied forces. He called these attacks his Hundred Days campaign, during which he planned to defeat each allied force individually before they could band together and rise up against him. In the stunning Battle of Ligny in 1815, Napoleon led his troops into battle in Belgium against Prussian forces, during which they nearly destroyed the entirety of the Prussian army. However, it wouldn’t be long before the allied forces would begin to band together strike back. Napoleon wasn’t quick enough to keep up with their assembly. The next battle halted Napoleon’s reign before he could take over any more of Europe.

The paralyzing Battle of Waterloo

On June 18th, 1815, just after defeating Prussian forces, Napoleon seemed to be convinced that he was invincible. However, Napoleon was reportedly feeling ill and making rash and nonsensical military decisions just before the Battle of Waterloo. Despite this, he led his 72,000 troops to Waterloo, where 68,000 British soldiers were camped out in Brussels near Waterloo, waiting to fight. At first, the British were outnumbered. However, Napoleon made the poor decision to hold back his troops from battle for several hours until the ground fully dried up after a nasty rainstorm. While the minor inconvenience of the weather may not seem like it would make much of a difference in battle, that extra time allowed the British troops to collect nearly 30,000 Prussian soldiers who prepared to march to Waterloo to fight Napoleon. And hey, the Prussians were pretty pissed after the casualty-heavy previous battle. They weren’t planning on losing twice.

While Napoleon was certain that his troops could defeat the British, he was far from prepared to take on the Prussians, too. The allied forces banded together in ways that Napoleon hadn’t expected or prepared for. By the end of the battle, after the French were forced to retreat, nearly 33,000 French casualties could be accounted for. Of course, every military member and citizen of France pointed the finger at Napoleon for their losses. They claimed that, due to his sickness, he enacted poor military strategies and didn’t appoint strong enough leaders to take on such a massive amount of British and Prussian troops. Poor Napoleon’s military career instantly went up in flames. He cried as he rode his horse away from the Battle of Waterloo. His reputation never recovered and he was eventually exiled for a second time, not returning to France ever again. It’s hard to blame him for keeping his distance from a country that had grown to resent him, right? He died on the island of Saint Helena in 1821.