The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was the epic end to the decade of turmoil that surrounded Napoleon Bonaparte’s stunning rise to power. Through a series of military victories across Europe, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France (1804) and King of Italy (1805). Though captured in 1814 and imprisoned in Elba, Napoleon escaped and returned to power.
Bonaparte sought to divide the Prussian and British armies by moving into the lands that now comprise modern-day Belgium. After defeating the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny, Napoleon planned to attack the British, led by the Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo before the Prussians could arrive to provide support. While Wellington was reportedly organizing his troops by 6 am on June 18, 1815, Bonaparte’s actions that morning are the subject of controversy. What is not disputed is that the French forces got a “late start,” beginning their attack on the British positions somewhere between 11 am-1:30 pm. The cause for this delay is debated. Tradition holds that the ground was sodden, hampering artillery movements. Another possibility, however, is that General Bonaparte himself was suffering from a serious illness which impaired his judgment. Could Napoleon’s longstanding urinary difficulties have swayed the course of history?
Napoleon by Paul Delaroche
The French leader was known to have suffered from urinary complaints, possibly from schistosomiasis contracted by many French soldiers during the Egyptian campaigns in 1798. As early as 1810, he had bouts of urinary retention, and sources suggested that Napoleon was in throes of a serious urologic infection in 1812, which, along with the cold Russian winter, may have forced the retreat of Napoleon’s forces.
Did these same symptoms plague the Emperor of France at Waterloo? Napoleon’s officers reported that Napoleon fell back asleep at his table after breakfast on the day of the battle, having perhaps taken laudanum to dull the pain from cystitis, and had to be roused at 11 am. Around the time of the battle, Jerome Bonaparte stated that his brother was suffering “a little weakness of the bladder,” but later confessed to a historian, Monsieur Thiers, that he had been embarrassed to say at the time that Napoleon’s main complaint was hemorrhoids. These two complaints could be linked if chronic struggles to urinate led to prolapse of hemorrhoids. Either could have made it very painful for the Emperor to ride his horse and command his troops.
Whatever the cause, Napoleon’s dominance in Europe came to a stunning end in 1815, as he “met his Waterloo” and was defeated by the Allied troops. He abdicated and was exiled to Saint Helena, where he later died at age 51 of advanced stomach cancer. Even world leaders who seem invincible are subject to common human medical conditions!
Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon by Sir William Quiller Orchardson
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Sara Best, MD