The history essay: Why Waterloo fires our imaginations

The iconic 1815 battle wasn’t even the most significant clash of the Napoleonic Wars, so why has it commanded such reverence for over 200 years?

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

The decisive battle in the struggle to overthrow the Napoleonic empire was not Waterloo but Leipzig. Sometimes known as the Battle of the Nations, the latter raged over four days in October 1813, involving five armies comprising half a million men, who inflicted around 100,000 casualties on each other.

It was the biggest battle Europe had ever seen. The results were commensurate. In less than six months, the Allies had captured Paris, restored the Bourbon monarchy in the unappealing shape of Louis XVIII, and sent Napoleon off to exile on the little Mediterranean island of Elba. That should have been that.

But Napoleon was as deaf to the voice of reason as he was to international law. With all the manic recklessness of the incorrigible gambler, he was determined to roll the dice once more. On 26 February 1815 he escaped from Elba, landing on the French mainland three days later. The last shreds of his once awesome charisma were sufficient to take him unchallenged to Paris in less than a month. Louis XVIII fled.

The explosive expansion of France following the outbreak of war in 1792 had been due in no small measure to the disunity of the other European powers. This time they were determined to stand together. Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain solemnly vowed to mobilise 150,000 men each and not to stand them down until Napoleon’s power had been utterly destroyed. These odds were so overwhelming that the end was not long coming. The army Napoleon took into Belgium in June 1815 was only 123,000-strong.

As Alan Forrest has put it in his excellent new book on Waterloo: “Even if he had won at Waterloo, Napoleon would surely have lost the war, and victory would have provided him with only the briefest of respites. In a drawn-out and bruising campaign there could only be one winner.” We shall never know how long it would have taken the Russians and the Austrians to grind him down, because Wellington’s multi-national army and Blücher’s Prussians proved sufficient.

Waterloo was definitively not the thunderous climax of the French Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars. But it had a colossal and enduring impact. There is only one road in Britain called ‘Leipzig’ (in Church Crookham in Hampshire), but there are around 350 ‘Waterloo’ roads, squares and avenues. For the sensitive French visitor, British street signs are a constant source of irritation (although at least Eurostar has moved its terminus from Waterloo station). There are towns named after the battle on every continent, and in at least 14 US states. There is even a Waterloo mountain – Waterloo Peak on New Zealand’s South Island.

How do we explain this discrepancy between importance and impact, both contemporary and subsequent? In part, it is a tribute to Napoleon’s super-human reputation. So dazzling had been his run of good fortune between 1796 and 1807 that the collective sigh of relief at his eventual fall was ear-splitting. Leipzig had dug his grave and built the coffin, Waterloo screwed down the lid. Twenty three years of almost incessant warfare between 1792 and 1815 had devastated Europe and killed around 5 million of its inhabitants (proportionally as many as the First World War). No wonder that the survivors rejoiced when the last and most toxic exponent of revolutionary total war was packed off to St Helena in the remote South Atlantic.

The British had particular reasons for celebration. Of all the great powers, it was they who had spent the longest time at war and it was they who had spent the most money, much of it on subsidising continental allies. Although they had enjoyed naval success in abundance, most spectacularly at Trafalgar in 1805, there had been no corresponding triumph on land. Even the Duke of Wellington’s long campaign in Portugal and Spain had been more hard slog than firework display. Waterloo made amends. Barely had the British public had time to lament the return of the tyrant from Elba than they were out dancing in the streets to celebrate his total defeat.

Those who took a longer view could also see that Waterloo was the final full-stop in a narrative that had begun in 1688, when the Glorious Revolution triggered what has rightly been called ‘the Second Hundred Years’ War’. In the Nine Years’ War (1688–97), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), the War of the American Revolution (1778–83) and the Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), France and Britain had struggled for predominance in the world overseas. Waterloo put a stop to that unhappy sequence but not before unleashing one last orgy of Francophobe triumphalism across Britain.

The tone was set at the top. In the House of Commons, the foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, proclaimed that “it was an achievement of such high merit, of such pre-eminent importance, as had never perhaps graced the annals of this or any other country till now”.

Waterloo promptly became the most publicly celebrated battle in English history since Agincourt. Leading the charge was the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who asserted that nothing less than the future of world civilisation had been at stake on 18 June: for Napoleon represented “the gross material philosophy which has been the guiding principle of the French politicians since 1789, military despotism and the brutalisation and degradation of the human race”. In short it had been “a struggle between good and evil principles”, and so the victors had every right to rejoice: “What British heart that would not feel a flow / Upon that ground, of elevating pride? / What British cheek is there that would not glow / To hear our country blest and magnified? / For Britain here was blest by old and young, / Admired by every heart and praised by every tongue.”

Hippolyte Delaroche’s famous portrait of Napoleon in his study. Waterloo’s unique status is, in part, a product of Britons’ elation at the final fall of a man they regarded as a brutish despot. © Bridgeman

Celebration was tempered by the cost of victory. The battlefield covered barely three square miles. As around 200,000 soldiers and over 400 guns were packed into that small space, the carnage inflicted during the nine hours of incessant fighting was truly frightful. The French lost at least 25,000 dead or seriously wounded (many of whom died soon afterwards) and many more during their ferocious pursuit by the Prussians; the Allies lost almost as many. From the rich record of harrowing recollections, representative is the following, from Major Harry Smith, who rode across the battlefield on the following day: “At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, the French cuirassiers were literally piled on each other; many soldiers not wounded lying under their horses; others fearfully wounded, occasionally with their horses struggling upon their wounded bodies. The sight was sickening, and I had no means or power to assist them.”

The British cavalry are shown cutting down their French foes in William Sullivan’s 1898 painting.  Interest in the battle was stimulated by vivid first-hand accounts from tourists who flocked to see its aftermath. © Bridgeman

Moreover, news of the bloodletting immediately found its way into the public prints. There had been terrible battles before, at Eylau in 1807, for example, but Waterloo was not in some remote corner of eastern Europe, it was close to home. Within weeks – days, even – tourists were flocking to witness at first hand the aftermath of battle, and duly recorded their horrified impressions. A published account dated 7 August, which went through several editions in 1815, found that the battlefield still literally reeked of death: “There are huge graves or rather piles which are filled with hundreds of dead, where the victors and vanquished are promiscuously laid; so lightly has the clay been laid over them, that from one a hand had forced its way above the ground, and in another a human face was distinctly visible. Indescribable was the horror of these objects. Three weeks after the battle, the very gales of heaven were tainted with the effluvia arising from them: besides these tremendous graves, of which several hundreds might be counted, immense heaps of the dead were burnt in different places, and their ashes, mingled with the dust, are scattered over the field.”

Aesthetically, the finest expression of the carnage was delivered by Turner’s The Field of Waterloo, painted in c1817 and based on 16 sketches made on site the year before, as far removed from a triumphalist depiction as it is possible to get. In the watercolour sketch now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge there is only death to be seen, and moreover death that is shared by both parties, as red-uniformed and blue-uniformed corpses lie together.

For many people, the scale of the slaughter meant celebration was inappropriate. JMW Turner’s sombre watercolour sketch  The Field of Waterloo, c1817, is not a portrayal of victory. Instead it shows French and British soldiers united in death. © Bridgeman

When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818, Turner added to the catalogue entry appropriate lines from Byron’s poem Childe Harold: “Last noon beheld them full of lusty life; / Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay; / The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife; / The morn the marshalling of arms – the day, / Battle’s magnificently stern array! / The thunder clouds close o’er it, which when rent, / The earth is covered thick with other clay / Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent, / Rider and horse – friend, foe – in one red burial blent!”

JMW Turner’s The Field of Waterloo, first exhibited in 1818, depicts the grim aftermath of the battle. © Tate, London, 2015

For many, the scale of the carnage prohibited celebration. They included Wellington who, late on the day of the battle, told the wounded Lord Fitzroy Somerset: “I have never fought such a battle, and I trust I shall never fight such another.” When later feted at Brussels, he wept, saying: “Oh! Do not congratulate me. I have lost all my friends.”

In France, in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, a determined campaign was mounted by supporters of Louis XVIII, now restored for the second time, to pin the blame for the defeat on ‘Bonaparte’. It may have been a murderous affair, argued one pamphleteer, but it was worth it because it put an end to the usurper. France had not been defeated in the campaign, he asserted; on the contrary, France formed part of the victorious coalition and had not been conquered but liberated. This was also the line adopted by the victors. As his army entered France, Wellington issued a general order to the soldiers reminding them that Louis XVIII was an ally and that France must be treated as a friendly country.

A French rosette found on the battlefield of Waterloo. Within days, Frenchmen were hailing their defeat as a liberation. © Bridgeman

This personalisation of defeat could not survive the rapid discrediting of the Restoration regime in the 1820s, its collapse in the July Revolution of 1830 and the rise of the Napoleonic cult. The latter was given a powerful boost in 1840 by the coincidence of the return of Napoleon’s remains from St Helena with French humiliation over the ‘Rhine Crisis’. As it dawned on French public opinion that their country’s role in the world had diminished, was diminishing and would continue to diminish, the atrocities, oppression and carnage of the First Empire slipped from the memory. In their place, a nostalgic glow shone from Napoleon’s military glory. It was not just committed Bonapartists who compared the drab mediocrity of the present with the glamorous past, as Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte discovered in December 1848 when he became president of the Republic with 75 per cent of the popular vote. It was “not an election but an acclamation”, as Emile de Girardin put it.

Given Louis Napoleon’s less than impressive personality, this amazing flight of the phoenix showed how memory of defeat can be transformed into its opposite. The Bonapartists had been greatly assisted by an episode alleged to have occurred towards the very end of the battle. Almost as soon as the guns fell silent, a story began to make the rounds in the French press that, as victorious British troops pressed in on the last remaining unit of Napoleon’s Guards, a British officer called on them to surrender. There are two versions of the reply shouted by a defiant General Cambronne: “The Guard dies and does not surrender” and “Shit!” (Merde!). The indomitable if suicidal Guards were then duly mowed down by British artillery.

This was completely fictional. Cambronne did not die but surrendered. He later married the British nurse who tended him after the battle and rallied to Louis XVIII, who made him commandant of Lille and ennobled him into the bargain. No matter. It was the powerful image of defiance in defeat that counted. Later in the century it was given a tremendous boost by the recounting of the episode in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables (1862). Hugo maintained that Cambronne’s obscenity ensured that it was France that really won the battle and that ‘Merde!’ was “perhaps the finest word ever spoken by a Frenchman”.

It is a tribute to the power of myth that, even as a writer who celebrated the epic, Hugo should be memorialised on the battlefield. His is one of many: there are over a hundred. Some are grand, such as the Gordon Monument, Hanover Monument, or Prussian Monument; others are modest plaques marking the death of an individual. The grandest is the Lion Mound, an artificial tumulus 150ft high, containing nearly 300,000 cubic metres of earth, reached by 226 steps and surmounted by a bronze lion weighing 28 tons. Not surprisingly, it took 2,000 labourers with 600 horses and carts all of three years to build in the 1820s. Marking the spot where the Crown Prince of Orange was wounded, it was intended to inject legitimacy into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. One of the shakiest creations of the Congress of Vienna, the kingdom collapsed in 1830 when the Belgians seceded to form their own independent state.

The 150ft-high Lion Mound of Waterloo is the grandest of more than a hundred memorials across the battlefield. © Rex Features

Political manipulation of the battle has never gone away. In his book The Hundred Days or the Spirit of Sacrifice, Dominique de Villepin, French prime minister from 2005 until 2007, showed that the spirit of Victor Hugo lives on by claiming: “The sublime sacrifice of the Guard and their courage redeemed the debacle for posterity.” Similar exercises in whistling in the dark can be anticipated as the bicentenary approaches. Frank Samson, the re-enactor who will take the part of Napoleon in the re-enactment (planned on the battlefield in Belgium from 19-20 June), has already hailed his character as the true victor: “The public will acclaim him and we have forgotten that he lost.” There was a predictable reaction from the British tabloids to this boast and it has to be said that, no matter how the myth is spun, one adamantine fact remains: it was Napoleon that met his Waterloo at Waterloo.

However trivial it may seem, the actual name of the battle has played a part in its mythology. So euphonious is that combination of soft vowels in a triple rhythm that it has invited musical treatment. Songs such as Stonewall Jackson’s Waterloo (1959) or the Bee Gees’ Walking Back to Waterloo (1971) have spread the word to places historians cannot reach. In a class by itself in the popularisation of this image of total defeat has been Abba’s version of 1974, which quickly became one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. Singing along to a karaoke version may well be the least controversial way of commemorating the bicentenary: My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way / The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself / Waterloo – I was defeated, you won the war / Waterloo – Promise to love you for ever more / Waterloo – Couldn’t escape if I wanted to / Waterloo – Knowing my fate is to be with you / Waterloo – Finally facing my Waterloo.

Professor Tim Blanning is a historian based at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He is a fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is The Romantic Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).

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