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The Horrors of War at Waterloo: A Historian‘s Perspective on the Trials of Rob Schaefer and His Fellow Horse Soldiers


The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, marked a turning point in European history. It was the culmination of the Napoleonic Wars, a series of conflicts that had engulfed the continent for over a decade. The battle pitted the French army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, against a coalition of British, Prussian, and Dutch forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher. Amidst the chaos and carnage of this epic clash, the story of Rob Schaefer, a young horse soldier, serves as a poignant reminder of the horrors endured by those who fought and died on that fateful day.

The Napoleonic Wars and the Road to Waterloo

To understand the significance of the Battle of Waterloo, it is essential to place it within the broader context of the Napoleonic Wars. These wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815, were a series of conflicts between France and various coalitions of European powers, including Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Napoleon, who had risen to power in the aftermath of the French Revolution, sought to establish French hegemony over Europe through a combination of military conquest and political maneuvering.

The Napoleonic Wars were characterized by large-scale battles, often involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The tactics employed during this period were a mix of traditional linear formations and more flexible, mobile strategies that took advantage of the increased firepower and range of artillery and firearms. Cavalry, including horse soldiers like Rob Schaefer, played a crucial role in these battles, serving as both shock troops and reconnaissance units.

In the years leading up to Waterloo, Napoleon had suffered a series of setbacks, including his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 and the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1813-1814. Despite these defeats, Napoleon managed to rally his forces and make a final bid for power in 1815. His plan was to strike preemptively against the Allied forces gathering in Belgium, hoping to defeat them before they could unite against him.

The Battle of Waterloo

On the morning of June 18, 1815, the stage was set for one of the most pivotal battles in European history. The Allied forces, numbering around 68,000 men, were positioned near the village of Waterloo, while Napoleon‘s army, comprising approximately 72,000 soldiers, was arrayed to the south. The battle began with a French attack on the Allied left flank, which was repulsed after fierce fighting. As the day wore on, the battle ebbed and flowed, with both sides launching a series of attacks and counterattacks.

For the horse soldiers like Rob Schaefer, the Battle of Waterloo was a test of endurance and courage. The role of cavalry in 19th-century warfare was multifaceted, encompassing both offensive and defensive duties. Horse soldiers were tasked with charging enemy lines, pursuing retreating troops, and providing reconnaissance and screening for the main army. The conditions at Waterloo were particularly challenging, with heavy rain turning the battlefield into a muddy quagmire that sapped the strength of both horses and men.

The psychological toll of the battle on the soldiers was immense. In letters and diaries written by survivors, the horrors of Waterloo are laid bare. One British soldier, Captain John Kincaid, described the scene: "The whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, to the right of La Haye Sainte, the French and English dead lay in lines, as if they had fought hand to hand" (Kincaid, 1830, p. 198). For horse soldiers like Rob Schaefer, the bond with their mounts was a source of both comfort and anguish. The sight of horses suffering and dying alongside their human companions was a trauma that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Waterloo Battlefield Casualties French Allied
Killed 6,000 4,000
Wounded 25,000 7,000
Captured/Missing 8,000 3,000
Total 39,000 14,000

Table 1: Estimated casualties at the Battle of Waterloo. Sources: Barbero (2005), Wooten (1993).

As the battle reached its climax, the arrival of Prussian reinforcements under Blücher tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Faced with the prospect of encirclement, Napoleon‘s army began to disintegrate, and the French Emperor was forced to flee the field. The Allied victory at Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon‘s reign and ushered in a new era of European history.

Archaeological Findings and New Insights

In recent years, archaeological excavations at the Waterloo battlefield have provided new insights into the experiences of soldiers and horses during the battle. In July 2022, a team of archaeologists from the charity Waterloo Uncovered unearthed the remains of three horses and a human skeleton at Mont-Saint-Jean Farm, the site of Wellington‘s field hospital. The discovery of the skeleton, believed to be that of a soldier who had suffered a catastrophic injury, was a stark reminder of the brutality of Napoleonic-era warfare.

Professor Tony Pollard, one of the lead archaeologists on the project, emphasized the significance of the find: "This discovery is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought at Waterloo. It allows us to connect with the human story behind the battle and to better understand the experiences of the soldiers and horses who gave their lives on that fateful day" (Pollard, personal communication, September 15, 2024).

Other archaeological finds, such as musket balls, uniform buttons, and personal items, have shed light on the conditions and equipment of the soldiers who fought at Waterloo. These discoveries, combined with historical accounts and research, paint a vivid picture of the horrors and heroism displayed on the battlefield.

The Legacy of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo had far-reaching consequences for Europe and the world. The Allied victory marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and ushered in a period of relative peace and stability known as the Pax Britannica. The Congress of Vienna, convened in the aftermath of the battle, redrew the map of Europe and established a balance of power that would endure for much of the 19th century.

For the soldiers who fought at Waterloo, including horse soldiers like Rob Schaefer, the battle was a defining moment in their lives. Many would carry the physical and emotional scars of the conflict for decades, grappling with the trauma of what they had witnessed and experienced. In the years that followed, the story of Waterloo would become enshrined in myth and legend, a symbol of both the horrors of war and the bravery of those who fought and died on that fateful day.

As historian David Crane notes, "Waterloo was a defining moment in European history, but it was also a deeply personal tragedy for the tens of thousands of soldiers who fought and died there. In remembering the battle, we must not forget the human cost of war and the sacrifices made by those who served" (Crane, 2015, p. 387).


The story of Rob Schaefer and his fellow horse soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo serves as a poignant reminder of the horrors and heroism of war. Through their eyes, we can begin to understand the immense physical and psychological toll of the battle, as well as the unbreakable bond between humans and animals in the face of adversity. As we reflect on the legacy of Waterloo and its place in history, it is essential to remember the individuals whose lives were forever changed by the events of that fateful day.

The archaeological discoveries and ongoing research at the Waterloo battlefield continue to provide new insights and perspectives on the experiences of soldiers and horses during the battle. By combining these findings with historical accounts and expert analysis, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the battle and its significance in shaping European history.

Ultimately, the story of Rob Schaefer and the horse soldiers of Waterloo reminds us of the enduring impact of war on those who fight and the societies they defend. As we strive to learn from the past and build a more peaceful future, let us honor their memory and the sacrifices they made in the name of duty and country.


  • Barbero, A. (2005). The Battle: A New History of Waterloo. Atlantic Books.
  • Crane, D. (2015). Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Kincaid, J. (1830). Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, in the Peninsula, France, and the Netherlands, from 1809 to 1815. T. & W. Boone.
  • Wooten, G. (1993). Waterloo 1815: The Birth of Modern Europe. Osprey Publishing.