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The Rainstorm That Saved Us From Speaking French

This is the second installment of The Daily Caller News Foundation’s “The Weather At War” series, which examines pivotal battles in history where the outcomes were decided by the weather. This article commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo– the battle that ended Napoleon’s bid for world domination.

Belgium, June 18, 1815 — Napoleon Bonaparte is on the march with his Grande Armée, 72,000-strong, determined to find and annihilate the allied British and Prussian forces. The French emperor is confident of victory: He has won more than 50 battles in his life and has never lost against a weaker foe. The British, a hastily-assembled force of just 68,000 under the Duke of Wellington, appear to be all that stands in the way of Napoleon and renewed dominion over Europe.

Napoleon has been forced from power once already, but it took a united coalition of Europe’s mightiest powers to bring him down and send him to exile on Elba. Now, he has escaped from his prison, Napoleon has a plan he feels is flawless: He will lash out at his enemies while they remain separated, destroying each in turn and compelling them to sue for peace.

Napoleon’s plan is well on its way to success. Just two days before, the Corsican crushed the Prussians under Gebhard Von Blucher at Ligny, leaving Wellington isolated and outnumbered. The British were forced back toward Brussels, retreating to the hills just south of a small town called Waterloo, where Wellington had earlier concluded the best defensive terrain will be found. Knowing that alone his forces cannot stand against the French, he desperately calls for Blucher to reassemble his shattered Prussian forces and come to his aid.

The Prussians are far away, however, and Napoleon has no intention of letting them intervene. He moves his army north and plans to attack at dawn on the 18th. Outnumbered and facing one of the greatest soldiers in history, Wellington seems doomed.

“He is a bad general and the English are breakfast!” Napoleon reportedly said of his opponent. Only an act of God could save the English now.

And an act of God is exactly what occurred. On the night of the 17th, a ferocious rainstorm falls directly over the battlefield.

“The rain fell so hard that the oldest soldiers there never saw the like,” British private John Lewis wrote in a letter home. The rain makes an ankle-deep morass of Belgium’s dirt roads, making it almost impossible for Napoleon to bring up his biggest guns. On the battlefield itself, the mud made his cannonballs useless, as they would simply stick in the mud rather than bouncing into the enemy’s ranks as intended. In an attack, Napoleon’s infantry and cavalry would have staggered slowly through the mud, easy targets for Wellington’s men.

So Napoleon was forced to gamble with the fate of his army. Rather than attacking at first light, he held back assaults against the British until nearly noon on June 18 to wait for the ground to dry.

This risky decision made all the difference. When the emperor’s attack came, it was furious and pushed Wellington’s army to its absolute limit. By mid-afternoon Wellington’s center was cratering, hard-pressed by French cannon and musket fire. It was then that Napoelon noticed some movement to the east. He sent scouts to investigate, who brought back dire news. The Prussian were coming.

Napoleon made one last-ditch assault, throwing his undefeated Imperial Guard into the British center in one final bid for world dominion. But the British held, and with Blucher’s help snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. With his Guard destroyed, Napoleon’s soldiers routed, and the emperor himself fled the battlefield in disgrace. A few days later he abdicated for the second time, and was quickly arrested and exiled to St. Helena, where he died. France, meanwhile, returned to the rule of Bourbon kings. A few hours of rain cost Napoleon his French Empire.

And how much did that one rainstorm matter to human history? More than may be apparent at first. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest military genius in history, his ambition was without limit, and France was Europe’s most powerful country. Only his defeat could allow for the English-speaking countries of Great Britain and the United States to rise to global preeminence. Had he succeeded, it may have been the French Empire that dominated the world for a century or more, and French may have become the world’s common language.

“It has been a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” Wellington said of the battle, reflecting on how close Napoleon came to rekindling his imperial ambitions. Sometimes, a few drops of rain can make all the difference.

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