Waterloo, fought from 11:25 A.M. until nightfall, about 10 P.M., on 18 June, was a peculiarly savage and costly battle, a fitting climax to Bonaparte’s long career of large-scale bloodshed. Because Bonaparte’s determination to destroy the army Wellington commanded by a frontal assault and because of the configuration of the ground, nearly 140,000 men and 30,000 horses, plus over 400 guns, were crammed into a lethal space of less than three square miles. Bonaparte had 71,947 men and 246 guns committed to the action, against Wellington’s 67,661 men and 156 guns, and the majority of them were under fire, or actually in contact with their enemy, for several hours on that long, wet, misty and muddy day.
Waterloo, like New Orleans, was one of the decisive battles of history. It finished off Bonaparte for good and introduced a period of general European peace which lasted a century. No one doubted its importance at the time, least of all Wellington. But he was appalled at the cost. Battle-hardened as he was, the number of dead and savagely wounded, including many personal friends and old comrades, left him shaken.
When news of the horrifying casualties spread through London, some of the younger hospital surgeons immediately took coach for the Continent. They found an appalling scene at Waterloo. Many of the British wounded had been collected off the battlefield, but hundreds of them were still awaiting surgery. The field itself was still scattered with the stricken, lying amid the dead. Colonel Frederick Ponsonby had been cut up by French cavalry sabers and left for dead; he had been speared by a passing Polish lancer; given some brandy by a French officer; piled into a barricade of bodies by retreating French infantry; ridden over and tossed by Prussian cavalry; discovered by a British infantryman who stood guard over him throughout the night, while he felt the air pass in and out of his pierced lung; and finally taken off to a dressing-station at daybreak. He was known as “the Man Who Was Killed at Waterloo,” and spotted twelve years later, as governor of Malta, by Captain Codrington’s daughter, who found him “playing violent games of racquets with as much energy as the young soldiers around him.” (Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 pp. 81, 83, 84)