On June 18, 1815 the course of European history was changed when French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte found himself outmatched on the fields near Waterloo, Belgium. Britain's Duke of Wellington would become a celebrated hero and eventually Prime Minister, while Napoleon would retreat to Paris and soon after head into exile on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. It all came down to a cool day in June that began with heavy rains. By nightfall some 10 hours after it began, the battle was over, as was the French leader's 100-day comeback.
For 200 years the Battle of Waterloo has been debated time and time again. In part it has been argued that it was a battle Napoleon could have won, and even should have won. However, the modern thinking is that the battle actually might not have been as decisive as suggested.
"In the end, the battle probably did not matter much. Had Napoleon won, it would have been very embarrassing for the British, and Wellington's reputation would not have been as great," Professor Michael Broers of the history department at the University of Oxford, told FoxNews.com. "However, there was a very large, battle hardened Russian army in Western Europe, which would have seen Napoleon off. The Allies were not prepared to give in."
A Smaller Battle
One other facet of Waterloo that is often overlooked is that in terms of Napoleonic Era battles it wasn't the largest by any means. While Napoleon is remembered for being on the short side, a common misconception is that Waterloo was the titanic battle to end all battles, but this is far from the truth. It was an important battle, no doubt, but when compared to other engagements Waterloo was quite smaller.
"There had been much bigger battles," Paul O'Keeffe, author of “Waterloo: The Aftermath” told FoxNews.com. "The Battle of Leipzig in 1813 had some 90,000 dead and wounded, whereas Waterloo had some 45,000 dead and wounded."
This is still a tragically high number, O'Keeffe agreed, but the other significant detail is that these men fell in a relatively small patch of land in Belgium on that fateful June day.
"Waterloo was fought on a much smaller area than other battles of the era, just five square miles," said O'Keeffe. "Compare that to Leipzig, which was fought over 21 miles. The carnage at Waterloo was thus horrific with so many dead, as well as some 7,000 dead and maimed horses!"
Napoleon may have met his Waterloo but he didn't technically surrender there and instead retreated back to Paris. Throughout the summer of 1815 there were a number of small engagements and the final peace wasn't signed until November 20, 1815.
So why does Waterloo earn its place in history?
"While there was still fighting this battle in essence brought to an end of nearly 20 years of continuous warfare in Europe," said O'Keefe. "There were decisive battles but this was really a conclusive battle as it knocked out the French entirely."
The Fog of War
If there is one word that could truly describe the situation on the ground on June 18, 1815 it was probably "confusion." This is noted by several authors and historians. Part of the reason was that the colorful uniforms of the day didn't make it easy to distinguish friend from foe.
At one point the British 12th Light Dragoons, who wore blue coats as opposed to the more infamous "red coats" that were donned by the British infantry, came under friendly fire; while later in the day the Prussian black uniforms may have been mistaken for French blue. That latter and seemingly simple mistake may have cost Napoleon the battle and his empire.
"Napoleon knew that Marshal Grouchy was following the Prussians, and he hoped it was Grouchy who was approaching in the late afternoon," said Tim Clayton, author of “Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe's Destiny”.
The Prussians were not the only British allies at Waterloo who from a distance resembled their foes! Clayton noted that the Dutch Orange-Nassau Regiment wore blue uniforms with tall French style shakos, or hats.
"That added an extra layer of confusion and that took a little while to sort out," he told FoxNews.com. "This may have caused Napoleon to be even more optimistic especially as the advancing Prussians fired on the Nassau Regiment (who were in fact their allies). This may have helped convince Napoleon that the Prussians were actually Grouchy's troops after all! Waterloo is a classic example of the fog of war. If only they had mobile phones."
Beyond phones the French could have benefitted from GPS – or at least better maps. But even without the most accurate maps, this may have had little effect on the battle.
"The last little 'sensation' reported around Waterloo is that Napoleon was using a map that was wrongly printed and therefore 'lost' the battle, or the result may have been different," explained Robert Kershaw, author of “24 Hours at Waterloo: 18th June 1815”. "As an ex-military man, anyone trying to explain a map topographical error affecting the outcome of a battle such as this has got to be wired to the moon. What people tend to miss is that the battle certainly was, as Wellington explained, 'a close thing.'"
Wellington, known as “the Iron Duke” refused to comment on the battle for years.
"During a battle it is clear no one knows what the hell was going on," said O'Keeffe. "But afterward the Duke of Wellington refused to give any account of the battle. There were 40 publications in the [following] six months that brought out account of battle. Wellington refused and didn't give account. The Duke did suggest that the battle was like a ball or dance, where you don't know what is happening on the other side of the room. Simply put no-one could understand what was going on beyond their sector."
The general wellbeing and health of Napoleon has also been called into question since his defeat at Waterloo. It has been argued over the years that he wasn't feeling well and even the brief time he spent in the saddle may have been far more than he could handle.
"It is very difficult to know how ill he was," added Clayton. "We must too remember he wasn't the young man he had been at the outset of his career and he must have been exhausted by that stage of the 100 days since his return from exile."
Not only did he have a military campaign to manage but he had to dictate to his secretaries about the state of the government and happenings in Paris each night. Rest might have helped, but it could also be argued that the respite from the front may have cost him the battle.
"On June 15 he reportedly had a comfortable night sleep in the town of Charleroi, yet he said in exile he wished he had stayed at the front lines so he could have kept better track of the Prussians," noted Clayton.
Digging the Battlefield
What is beneath the ground in Waterloo in the Belgian countryside could also shed more light on the battle. Recently the first complete skeleton of a soldier killed at the battle was recovered, and identified as Friedrich Brandt, a member of the King's German Legion who served under Britain's King George III. Brandt, who was reportedly just 23-years old when he fell, was killed when a musket ball lodged in his ribs.
This soldier's remains likely won't be the last to be recovered.
"The entire battlefield was cleared almost as soon as the fighting ended as locals and soldiers looted it for anything of value," said O'Keeffe. "Moreover it is really a mass grave as the soldiers were buried or burned in the thousands. We have to remember this was a time before there were war cemeteries."
The Waterloo Uncovered project, which began this year, aims to explore the battlefield and reveal secrets that may have been buried for the last 200 years. An international team began the first major excavation at Hougoumont Farm, which proved to be a decisive position in the British lines as 4,000 British troops successfully held off some 15,000 French soldiers throughout the afternoon.
"I suspect they are hoping to find the mass burial pits located near the farm," said Clayton. "Already excavations have found a surprising number of bullets, but because the battlefield has been looted there is still a question about how much this or other efforts will find."
It isn't just archaeologists and historians who are helping sift through the dirt at Waterloo. In April experts in soil sensing from Ghent University in Belgium used mobile multi-receiver electromagnetic induction (EMI) sensors as well as magnetometers to survey the landscape. This will help pinpoint areas that could be of potential interest to archaeologists.
The focus is on the Hougoumont Farm, explained Tony Pollard, director of the centre for battlefield archaeology at the University of Glasgow, who has been working closely with the Waterloo Uncovered project.
"The farm buildings still exist, apart from the chateau, which burned down during the battle. We began with a geophysical survey, which gives us an impression of below ground activity as magnetic or electrical anomalies," he told FoxNews.com. "Metal detector survey has demonstrated that illegal metal detecting has denuded the amount of battle related material, such as buttons and musket balls, in the ground. There is still enough left to tell us a story about how and where things occurred but if things continue as they are Hougoumont will be 'hoovered' (vacuumed) up by relic collectors over the next few years."
He added that the scatter of musket and pistol balls may suggest that the road into the woods nearby was hard fought over – possibly harder fought than past understanding.
"Even after just a few days’ work we have learned a lot more than we knew before - we are not going to change the course of the battle through the archaeology but it is providing a new level of detail, specifically at the moment in the area of the wood," Pollard said. "It is very early days yet and we hope in the long term to move out onto other areas of the battlefield."
While this year marks the 200th anniversary of the famous battle the Waterloo Uncovered project will continue over the coming five years with the next phase due to start in summer of 2016. Perhaps these discoveries will shed more light on the battle that reshaped the political map of Europe for the next 100 years.