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Maverick Life

Two hundred years later, Waterloo remains iconic

Two hundred years later, Waterloo remains iconic

The anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo encourages J. BROOKS SPECTOR to think about the impact of the battle and of Napoleon on modern Europe.

When this writer was about ten years old, a family friend showed him the results of a lifetime preoccupation and hobby of collecting Napoleonic memorabilia and books about the French emperor and general. Over a long lifetime, the man had collected an entire room’s worth of volumes on Napoleon and his times. Besides the many shelves laden with books, the walls – wherever there were no bookshelves – were covered by period maps and documents.

But this man clearly still had a long, long way to go to come close to cornering the market. A check at the WorldCat website shows that, as of the day of this writing, a total of 113,310 (!) books have been published on Napoleon. And this does not include more than 3,000 dissertations, and thousands more constantly updated resource sites, separately indexed book chapters and yet other microform sources of information on him. And there is also a vast horde of downloadable archival material as well as thousands of recordings related to the man in some way, including, no doubt, numerous recordings of Beethoven’s ‘Wellington’s Victory’ orchestral work – as well as that most quintessential of earworms, the Abba song, ‘Waterloo’.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica that had been annexed by France from the Italian city-state of Genoa just the year before he was born. (Otherwise, the great man might well have ended up being referred to as France’s most famous Mediterranean boat person.) Napoleon was largely schooled in France and eventually he received a military cadet’s education. In revolutionary France he quickly gained a reputation as one of the country’s most dependable and competent commanders, recapturing the port of Toulon from French royalists and the British Navy. He then achieved a notable string of victories across northern Italy against Habsburg Austria, including one, at Marengo, that gave birth to the famous dish, Chicken Marengo. (Under battlefield conditions, the cook had used olive oil rather than butter.)

Eventually, his exploits led Napoleon to political power, a rise that culminated in his declaring himself Emperor of the French (and, presumably, and hopefully, all of Europe as well). Inevitably, he overreached with his invasion of Russia of 1812, and that started the long slide back to defeat and eventual exile to the small island of Elba in 1814, where the victorious powers had placed him to keep him out of harm’s way. But, tiring of his tiny play-kingdom, he slipped his guards and returned to France, recruiting his loyal veterans for one last roll of the dice to recapture the glory.

Napoleon returns from Elba

Photo: Napoleon’s Return from Elba, by Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben

As The Economist recalls it, “He soon got bored, and in February 1815 returned to France to try and reclaim his prior, grander title. Upon his successful return to power the next month, many of the states that had previously opposed him began to mobilise armies, fearing that he was about to reconquer most of continental Europe. Two large anti-French forces assembled close to the north-eastern border of France against Napoleon. One was composed of 25,000 ‘very weak and ill-equipped’ troops from the British army and 43,000 soldiers from the Netherlands and Germany, led by the Duke of Wellington, an Irish aristocrat. The second was composed of 50,000 Prussians, led by Gebhard von Blücher. Napoleon gathered 73,000 French troops and marched to attack them to prevent an invasion. He decided to attack and defeat each army separately in order to maximise his chances of destroying them”.

And so, in early June 1815, Napoleon and his reconstituted but veteran army marched into Belgium where he knew he had to defeat both of those armies separately before they could come together and vanquish him permanently through sheer weight of numbers. In rainy weather and appalling marching conditions, he first beat the Prussians back and then on 17 June turned to face the British.

As the BBC described it, “…two men faced off in a muddy field in Belgium. Wellington, with his British and Allied army, and Napoleon with his French Imperial Guard. One decisive battle could end 20 years of bloody conflict on the continent. It was a showdown between two of history’s military giants. They were the same age, formidable strategists and had a string of victories behind them. By 18 June, the outcome hung in the balance and the victor would determine the fate of Europe.”

In bloody, often hand-to-hand fighting between units of both infantry troops and cavalry forces, as well as close order artillery bombardments by both sides, the British were just able, ultimately, to hold off the French army until the Prussians arrived on the muddy battle site, a scene that by then was filling up with the thousands of dead and dying troops and horses all around the combatants. By the end of the engagement, the French had attacked on the left and right flanks as well as the centre of the front – but they had been repulsed in all three attempts.

In the end, the French army had been decisively broken and Napoleon had to carry out a last-ditch retreat towards Paris and then on to the French coast where it the rumour was that he was planning to embark for the Western Hemisphere to carry on the fight. But, with the coasts thoroughly blockaded, he finally surrendered to British naval officers and he was transported to the much less salubrious island of St. Helena where he finally died of boredom, possibly stomach cancer, and (reportedly) arsenic poisoning on 5th May 1821.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, the victorious powers – Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia – together with a conservative monarchy in France – established what was termed the “Concert of Europe” – a system that set out a European international order that largely kept the continent away from all-out continental warfare for close to a full century. Instead, rivalries were largely channelled into colonial expansion, increasingly rapid competition in industrialisation and mercantile expansion, until the tensions of a rising Germany against a nervous Britain, and a fading Austro-Hungary in competition with Russia for influence over or control of the new nations arising out of a collapsing Ottoman Empire led to the explosion when the heir to the Habsburg throne was assassinated in Sarajevo.

But beyond the great number of casualties from the military campaigns of the Napoleonic era, stretching from the years following the French Revolution through until 1815, the impact of the emperor-general on France and Europe more generally was immense. The great changes in France and elsewhere through the new legal code, the Code Napoleon, came into being, hand in hand with the emancipation of the peasantry (fully in many nations, but more partially in others occupied for less time by the French empire). This, in turn, helped spark the shift in industrialisation in Europe. All of this motion, urbanisation and growth in Europe eventually helped give rise to the socialist ideal and the movements associated with that as well. Meanwhile, European Jewry in France and the German and the Italian states was largely emancipated from restrictions that stretched back to the Middle Ages, and that led to a great burst of industry, finance and intellectual endeavour among those communities as well.

The vast movement of armies and people across Europe as result of Napoleon’s military campaigns also helped awaken the heretofore largely quiet nationalisms of people throughout Europe. Over time, this helped nurture movements for the unification of the miscellaneous German states and the Italian ones into two entirely new national entities, as well as the welling up of nationalist feeling throughout the multi-ethnic Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. (Ultimately, those competing nationalisms also helped encourage the tensions that broke Europe into two rival alliances and then continent-wide warfare in 1914.)

Simultaneously, the Concert of Europe helped consolidate a British realisation that its standing as first among equals, the ruler of the seas, and the satisfaction of its imperial designs elsewhere would be best preserved by maintaining the overall European balance. And this also meant inculcating such an understanding of the importance of that balance on the part of the other European nations – rather Britain’s direct engagement on the continent as had happened against Louis XIV forces and Napoleon both.

Even though they ultimately proved to be unsuccessful in his last battle, Napoleon’s ideas about military strategy and tactics – and especially those concerning the impact of élan, morale, and the superiority of mobility and flexibility in the attack – influenced generations of military leaders, especially through the writings of Antoine-Henri Jomini. These ideas led to the slaughter on the battlefields of the American Civil War (because so many of the Union and Confederate generals had studied Jomini’s writings at West Point), as well as in the early years of the First World War. This was the case despite the increasing mass lethality of weapons – especially when used on defence – and because of the even larger numbers of massed troops available to commanders from the middle of the 19th century onward. Nevertheless, in his own time, Napoleon was probably the first to understand how to mobilise and motivate a massed national army on patriotic grounds. For years, until the tide turned on him at Moscow, he could almost always bring more dedicated fighting forces to his side of battles than could his opponents.

Now, two hundred years after this decisive battle, thousands of military re-enactors have again trooped across the very same grounds where Napoleon was defeated. A British memorial to the all fallen in their victory in the Belgian farmland has now finally been erected and was officially unveiled by the Prince of Wales, together with descendants of three of the generals involved in the battle. The 9th Duke of Wellington, Prince Nikolaus von Blucher of Prussia and Prince Charles Bonaparte carried out a symbolic three-way handshake of friendship at the event.

And, inevitably, too, there has been a rumbling diplomatic squabble around the battle commemorations. In this case it has been a tussle between the French and the Belgians over the issuance of a commemorative euro coin, marking the battle. As The New York Times reported over this newest Waterloo battlefield, “After it [France] objected to a decision in March by Belgium to introduce a new 2 euro coin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Belgians retreated, scrapping 180,000 coins they had already minted. But victory for France is proving elusive. This week, Belgium decided to circumvent French resistance by invoking a little-known European Union rule that allows countries to issue euro coins of their choice, provided they are in an irregular denomination. That led to the unveiling of a €2.50 coin — a first in Belgium — and 70,000 of them have now been minted. The coins, which can only be spent inside Belgium, display a monument of a lion atop a cone-shaped hill on the site of France’s humiliation, as well as lines indicating where troops were positioned when forces led by Britain and Prussia defeated Napoleon in the countryside near Brussels.”

The Times went on to say, “Johan van Overtveldt, the Belgian finance minister, insisted on Monday that the new coins were not meant to provoke Gallic anger. ‘The goal is not to revive old quarrels in a modern Europe — and there are more important things to sort out,’ he was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse. ‘But there’s been no battle in recent history as important as Waterloo, or indeed one that captures the imagination in the same way.’ There is no doubt that the European Union has bigger struggles to wage at the moment. But in its small way, the skirmish has signalled the challenges facing European integration, and the limits of Europe’s open borders at overcoming old nationalist impulses.”

Napoleon’s two decades of European ascendancy and his dream of a single united Europe (under his rule to be sure) had deep roots in the European imagination. It stretched right back to Charlemagne and his Frankish kingdom – and has reached forward into the 20th and 21st centuries as well as an impetus for the new united Europe that is – admittedly imperfectly – signified by the EU and the euro.

But the question remains of whether the Europeans can actually achieve a supra-national enterprise able to withstand its internal tensions. These now include the threat of a Greek default and “Grexit” from the euro, as well as the insistence by UK Prime Minister Cameron that he will lead a renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s participation in the EU. And, of course, there are also the issues of whether – or how – a unified EU will figure out how to cope with the waves of migrations coming towards it from North Africa, as well as the pressures a combative Vladimir Putin-led Russia may yet exact against Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. One wonders how Napoleon would have handled each of these issues. Whatever he would have done in the name of European unity, he almost certainly would have done it decisively. And maybe there lies part of the continuing mystique of the man. DM

Read more:Top of Form

  • The Battle of Waterloo: The day that decided Europe’s fate at the BBC;
  • Battle of Waterloo memorial unveiled by Prince Charles at the BBC;
  • The Battle of Waterloo at the Economist;
  • Belgium Commemorates Waterloo With a Coin, and France Is Not Pleased at the New York Times;
  • Why Waterloo still fascinates us, at CNN;
  • Napoleon the Immigrant, 200 Years After Waterloo: On the bicentennial of the battle that changed Europe, France would do well to remember a key biographical detail of its onetime emperor. At com.

Photo: Wellington at Waterloo painting by Robert Alexander Hillingford showing Royal Horse Artillery on the left. (Wikimedia Commons)


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