The Battle of Waterloo 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte
There may be doubts about the facts surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty, but we come now to an integral part of the nation’s history about which there can surely be no possible dispute; that Britain won the Battle of Waterloo. Even asking the very question, ‘Did Britain win the Battle of Waterloo?’ sounds absurd. After all, if we didn’t win it, who did? It is a very curious thing that it is in general only in books published in Britain that the Duke of Wellington and the British army are credited with having defeated Napoleon at the last battle which he ever fought, which took place in Belgium on 18 June 1815. It is not a view that one will often find advanced in books produced in other European countries. In Germany, for example, they have quite a different view as to who was responsible for beating Napoleon in 1815. How is this possible?
The standard narrative of Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo is simple and straightforward. It is a classic and enduring instance of the mythic narrative of the British army crossing the Channel and sorting out Europe’s problems for her. Napoleon was a dictator who was determined to bring the whole of Europe under his control by means of armed conflict, installing in the process puppet rulers in countries such as Italy, men who would do his bidding. This tyrant then attempted to bring Britain to heel by the institution of a blockade intended to strangle British trade with Europe, which was known as the Continental System. Eventually, Britain had had enough and, partly to defend her own interests but also for the good of the whole Continent, set out to oppose and ultimately depose the Emperor of France. The British and their allies succeeded in doing so in 1814. Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. A year later, he escaped, gathered a mighty army and once again faced Britain on the battlefield, near the obscure Belgian village of Waterloo.
There, the British commander Wellington inflicted a crushing defeat upon Napoleon and he was exiled once more, this time to Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic, where he died a few years later. This then is how the story is taught in British schools and how most educated people in Britain today understand the background to and final resolution of the Battle of Waterloo. How is this major incident in European history viewed on the other side of the English Channel? To begin with, the hero of Waterloo, the general who vanquished Napoleon Bonaparte, is not Wellington, but rather a man of whom hardly anybody in Britain is likely to have heard. His name was Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt, and he was a Prussian soldier.
It is at this point that we recall something which is seldom mentioned in Britain when the subject of Waterloo comes up, that only a fifth of the soldiers fighting against the French that day were British. The overwhelming majority were German. The Battle of Waterloo as a German victory! This, for those brought up in Britain, is a disconcerting thought indeed. We shall see shortly that most of the salient facts about the Battle of Waterloo, including the real reason for Napoleon’s defeat, are quite unknown today. Not that this really matters, for Waterloo has achieved an importance in the hearts of the British nation which would in any case be impervious to new information! The overthrow of the French emperor in the aftermath of the battle signalled a long period of peace in Europe, for which Britain has always been eager to take the credit. Waterloo was also a forerunner of Britain’s military involvement in Europe during the two World Wars of the twentieth century. The Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium, less than 30 miles from Mons, scene of the first major action between the British and German armies in the First World War. In both cases, the object of the British was the defence of Belgium. Hitler’s conquest of Europe, which triggered the Second World War, was eerily reminiscent of Napoleon’s military campaigns of 140 years earlier, up and including the invasion of Russia. In the Napoleonic Wars, as in the Second World War, the perception of the British was that they had to cross the Channel and deal with a dictator whom the rest of Europe had allowed to get out of hand.
There is another reason that the Battle of Waterloo has a special place in the nation’s affections and that is because it is connected with the ‘Invaders from the East’ part of Britain’s mythos. It ties in with Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror and the Spanish Armada – a threatened invasion from the Continent. Before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte had been making active preparations for attacking Britain and ferrying an army across the Channel, with a view to marching on London. Mothers threatened their children that ‘Boney’ would get them, as though the emperor were some supernatural fiend. For a time, the fear lingered on that Napoleon represented a menace to the country. From this perspective, Wellington saved us from being overrun by foreign invaders and is consequently remembered with some of the gratitude which we accord Winston Churchill for rallying us against Hitler, another potential invader from the East. It is for this reason that both men have appeared on British £5 notes.
One final myth which was reinforced both during the run-up to the Battle of Waterloo and also during the fighting itself, was that of British sangfroid in the face of deadly peril. Two instances, one particularly well known, the other not quite as familiar, illustrate this. During the battle itself, the Earl of Uxbridge, the commander of Wellington’s cavalry, was sitting on his horse near the Duke of Wellington. A French cannonball flew over the neck of Wellington’s horse and went straight through Lord Uxbridge’s leg, whereupon he said stoically, ‘By God sir, I have lost my leg!’ To which Wellington replied casually, ‘By God sir, so you have! We read earlier about the legend that Francis Drake had been playing bowls when the Armada was first sighted and had insisted on finishing the game before taking ship to deal with the Spanish and save Britain from invasion.
A precisely similar tale is told of the Duke of Wellington when first he received news that Napoleon and his army were on the march towards him. On the night of 15 June 1815, just three days before the Battle of Waterloo, the wife of a senior British soldier held a ball in the Belgian capital, Brussels. It was later described as, ‘the most famous ball in history’, although of course the Duchess of Richmond could hardly have known that it would be anything special when she sent out the invitations. Nobody knew what Napoleon planned to do and so when the Duke of Wellington arrived at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15 June, he could not have guessed that before supper, he would be handed a note informing him that the French army were on the move in the direction of Brussels and that they had already pushed aside a Prussian force which had tried to halt their advance. As overall leader of the Allied armies, one might have expected Wellington to react immediately to such shocking news. Instead, he read the note and then calmly went into supper, sitting next to Lady Georgiana, one of the Duchess of Richmond’s daughters. Shortly after sitting down to eat, another note was brought to Wellington, which informed him that Napoleon’s army had almost reached Quatre Bras, a strategic crossroads on the road to Brussels.
It is now that the parallel between Francis Drake and the Duke of Wellington emerges, because on receiving news which would have caused a lesser man to leap from his seat in alarm and begin rallying his army, Wellington continued to chat casually with the women on either side of him. It was not until twenty minutes after learning that the French were marching on Brussels that the Duke made his excuses to his hostess and announced that he was going to bed. In fact, he went privately to her husband and asked if he had a good map of the area around Brussels. The pair of them withdrew to the Duke of Richmond’s dressing room, where together they examined the map. Wellington exclaimed, ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours march on me’.
In short, the Battle of Waterloo taps into a number of the mythic themes which we have examined and it is for that reason that, along with 55 BC and 1066, 1815 became one of the most memorable years in British history, known to every schoolchild. Little wonder that it was important that it became a purely British victory, one so celebrated that one of London’s biggest railway stations was later named in honour of it. Few people in Britain are aware, incidentally, that the Battle of Waterloo was not actually fought at Waterloo at all and that other countries have different names for the fighting which took place in Belgium that year. The fact is that Napoleon and his army never came within miles of Waterloo! The battle took place on farmland in and around a ridge called Mont St Jean. It is for this reason that in France the military action on 18 June 1815 is remembered by the name which Napoleon used for the encounter, la Battaile de Mont-Saint-Jean. This is itself a curious point and illustrates neatly, once again, why it is proper to refer to the ‘myth’ of Waterloo.
The Duke of Wellington had established his headquarters before the battle at the village of Waterloo, three miles from where the action would eventually take place. After the battle had been won, with the aid of the Prussian forces under the command of Marshal Blücher, the two commanders discussed what name should be given to the affair for posterity. By chance, their meeting took place outside an inn called La Belle Alliance. To Blücher, this seemed most fortuitous, as Belle Alliance suggested to him the alliance which had just defeated Napoleon; that of the Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and the other countries of the coalition ranged against France. When Blücher put this idea to Wellington, it was rejected out of hand. The Duke had already decided that the battle should be named after his own headquarters; even though they were miles from the scene of the actual fighting. Wellington had two reasons for this, the first being that he wished the battle to be named after his headquarters. His other purpose in insisting upon Waterloo was that he wanted his greatest victory to be a name that any Englishman would find easy to pronounce! The pronunciation of Waterloo is good deal more obvious than either Mont St Jean or Belle Alliance. Blücher agreed, but when he returned to Berlin, it was by the name of Belle Alliance that the victory became known to the Germans. That year, a square in Berlin was renamed Belle-Alliance-Platz to commemorate the battle, rather as we have in London Trafalgar Square, named after another famous victory of the Napoleonic Wars. By which it will be seen that even talking of the ‘Battle of Waterloo’ is, at least to some extent, subscribing to the myth created by the British.
The Battle of Waterloo was the climax of the Napoleonic Wars which had been plaguing the world since the end of the eighteenth century, when the thirty-year-old Napoleon had seized power in France with a coup d’etat. There are good grounds for seeing the Napoleonic Wars as the first ‘world war’, with the fighting ranging from the Caribbean to the Middle East, from southern Africa to Scandinavia. Going off at a slight tangent, it is curious to note that the three most notorious European dictators were none of them born in the countries of which they became the leaders. Stalin, ruler of Russia for thirty years, was from Georgia, Hitler was Austrian and Napoleon Bonaparte was born and grew up not in France, but Corsica.
When Napoleon became a dictator, first as consul and later as emperor, he ended the war with Britain which had been going more or less since the French Revolution took place. It did not, however, take long before his expansionist ambitions brought him once again into conflict with other European countries and also once more with Britain. For over ten years, the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe and much of the world. Eventually, just as Hitler would do the following century, Napoleon over-reached himself and invaded Russia. It was a disastrous move. Gradually, his enemies hemmed him in until on 11 April 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, was forced to abdicate and went into exile on the little island of Elba, off the coast of Italy. A year later, he landed back in France and for the next three months, prepared for what was in effect a ‘return bout’ with the Allied armies. At the end of what became known as ‘The Hundred Days’, in which he once more consolidated his power in France, Napoleon had mustered his army and was marching west towards Belgium, hoping to reunite it with France, of which it was historically a part. Which of course was where the Duke of Wellington and the British army was stationed, waiting for him.
One point which deserves consideration when thinking about the outcome of Waterloo is the physical state of the emperor. All those years of campaigning and virtually living in the saddle had wrought a great and detrimental change upon the young man who had seized control of France in Some of those who saw Napoleon for the first time in a year at the Battle of Waterloo were shocked at the change in his appearance. Witnesses found him looking fatter and appearing much older than before his exile and it was also remarked that he seemed very lethargic and drowsy. At the most crucial action of his whole career, the commander of the French army did not appear to be altogether in control of himself. This was scarcely surprising when we examine his medical history.
Driven by his desire to occupy and rule the whole of Europe and beyond by force of arms, Napoleon’s continuous military campaigns over the decades were scarcely conducive to good digestion. He snatched meals as and when possible and the food when travelling with his army was not always of high quality. The result was that from his mid-thirties, the emperor suffered from constant dyspepsia and colic. He also developed a peptic ulcer. The pain from these conditions was so excruciating that he was at times literally doubled up in agony. When at last the discomfort subsided, he found it necessary to sleep at once, no matter where he might be. At the Battle of Jena, which took place in Germany in 1806, his troops had to form a square around their slumbering commander, while the fighting raged. Partly as a result of the colic, Napoleon’s mind became more sluggish as the years passed. His impaired judgement nearly brought him to the brink of disaster on a number of occasions. Bladder problems too became a serious hindrance to Napoleon’s military exploits. At Borodino, in 1812, he could barely ride because of the pain he was experiencing from his bladder.
The technical name for the disorder from which Napoleon was suffering is dysuria, which makes urination difficult. It was well known among the troops who accompanied the emperor on campaign that from time to time they would have to halt, while their leader leaned against a tree for up to five minutes, struggling to empty his bladder. Then again, those years riding and sitting about in all conditions had given the emperor yet another debilitating disorder; that of prolapsed piles. We shall have occasion to return to this subject later, as Napoleon’s health problems caused him to blunder badly at Waterloo. Wellington may have been a brilliant tactician, but at Waterloo all he really needed to do was stand fast and wait for his old enemy to make errors, which he duly did. The Duke of Wellington deserves credit for doing little other than holding his ground and waiting for his allies to arrive and save the day for him.
Having looked at the some of the background to the battle, we should acquaint ourselves with what forces were actually involved in the thing and what each side did, or failed to do. We will be examining in particular the claim made in almost every book on the subject published in Britain that the Duke of Wellington was in some sense the victor and responsible for beating Napoleon that day, a victory upon which his political career and future reputation were founded. He went on to become Prime Minister twice. Following the collapse of the French Empire, the restoration of the monarchy in France and the exile of the one-time emperor, there were quite a few loose ends to be tied up in Europe, matters relating to border disputes, national sovereignty and other questions to be settled as peace returned to the Continent. An international conference was set up to deal with these problems. The Congress of Vienna first met in November 1814 and passed its final act on 9 June 1815, a week before Napoleon’s forces crossed the border and entered Belgium. This settlement laid the foundations for a century of peace in Europe. There were to be no more major European wars between this final act and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Various statesmen represented their countries at the Congress: Metternich for Austria, Tallyrand for France and, until Napoleon escaped from Elba, the Duke of Wellington on behalf of Britain. When it was known that Napoleon had returned to Paris and the newly-installed monarch of France had fled to Belgium, the countries represented at the Congress of Vienna hastily put together an army to tackle Napoleon, should he try once more to conquer Europe. The Russians, Austrians and Prussians maintained separate forces.
It would take some time for Austria and Russia to mobilize their armies, but Wellington was given command of a mixed force of British, Dutch and German troops, totalling almost 70,000 men. In addition to this, the Prussians also had a separate army under the command of Blücher. This contributed another 50,000 troops to the forces facing Napoleon at Waterloo. It is at this point that the myth of the ‘British’ victory at Waterloo begins to unravel in no uncertain fashion. The forces ranged against Napoleon on that fateful June day in 1815 consisted of just under 120,000 men. Of these, 31,000 belonged to the British Army, roughly a quarter. This is not the full story though. The 31,000 men who were nominally in the British army included 6,000 Germans in a unit known as the King’s German Legion. It might be helpful at this point to explain what is meant by ‘Germans’ in this context. There was in 1815 no country called ‘Germany’. Instead, there was a collection of city states and kingdoms, of which the most powerful and influential was Prussia. Another was Hanover, from where, of course, the British royal family had come in 1714. When Hanover was occupied by Napoleon’s troops, the Hanoverian army had decamped to Britain, where they received a warm welcome from George III, he being the ruler of Hanover as well as the United Kingdom. These troops were formed into a special unit, the King’s German Legion.
Adding up the Allied forces facing Napoleon in June 1815 reveals something which one would never guess from reading the average British schoolbook. There were 25,000 British, that is to say English, Welsh, Scots and Irish soldiers. Of the rest, 17,000 were Belgian and Dutch. It is when we add up those from what is modern-day Germany that the real surprise comes. In addition to the 6,000 Hanoverians of the King’s German Legion, there were another 11,000 Hanoverian soldiers, 6,000 from Brunswick and another 3,000 from the minor state of Nassau. Then there were the 50,000 Prussians, whose role in the Battle of Waterloo was crucial. In total, there were that day ranged against Napoleon’s army 79,000 troops from what we now call Germany and just 25,000 from Britain. In other words, more than three times as many Germans fought against the French at the Battle of Waterloo as did British soldiers! No wonder that this battle is remembered today in some parts of Europe as a German, rather than a British, victory.
Before the Battle of Waterloo, however, came two other battles which were to be of great importance in the final outcome of those June days in As soon as he left the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington organized his forces and began making plans to protect Brussels by confronting Napoleon’s army. The Prussian army under Blücher and the Anglo-Allied forces under Wellington both marched towards Napoleon and offered battle, positioning their forces to protect the route to Brussels. Not wishing to find himself fighting both armies simultaneously on the same field, Napoleon split his forces, attacking Wellington’s and Blücher’s armies separately. The way in which Napoleon directed his troops over those three days, culminating in his defeat at Waterloo, sheds yet more light on the idea of Wellington as the ‘victor’ at Waterloo and raises the possibility that his victory might have been at least as much due to his opponent’s blunders, among other factors, as anything else.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a military and political genius who had risen to be dictator of France and then ruler of most of Europe. He had achieved this by a number of astonishing feats of arms against superior forces and also by very adroit manoeuvring on the diplomatic front. Even becoming the Emperor of France was a breathtaking accomplishment, when we consider that he was not French and did not learn to speak French until he began school in that country when he was ten. He spoke with a strong Corsican accent for the whole of his life. Seizing control of France at the age of thirty was incredible enough, but conquering large swathes of Europe over the next ten years and installing his brother on the throne of Spain was almost unbelievable. Little wonder that the epoch is named after such a man…
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