The Battle of Waterloo - History

The Battle of Waterloo - History

Napoleon made a second attempt to seize control of France in 1815. He escaped prison and gained control of the French Army. The other nations of Europe sent large armies to fight him. At the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815 they defeated him.


News reached Napoleon Bonaparte at Elba of French discontent with renewed Bourbon rule. Napoleon decided to make another bid for power. On March 1, 1815, Napoleon landed in Cannes with 1,500 men. On March 20 he entered Paris and seized power. Thus began the 100 days.

The major European powers united in opposing Napoleon, each committing 180,000. The commander of the Allied forces became British General Wellington. Leading the Prussian troops was Field Marshal Blücher. The French first attacked the Prussian Army at the Battle of Ligny. The French gained a tactical victory there.

General Wellington moved his army back to Waterloo in Belgium. There on June 18th Napoleons French Army attacked. All afternoon they attacked but were unable to make progress. The Prussian Army came to the defense of the British, and by the evening, Napoleon committed the last of his reserved to the battle and failed. The British and Prussians then counterattacked and broke the French lines. Napoleon and his army were forced to flee back to Paris.

. On June 22 he surrendered to allied forces. Napoleon spent the rest of his life imprisoned on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.



The Battle of Waterloo - History

F aced with the overwhelming military might of his adversaries, Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne of France in April 1814.The victorious Allies banished the former Emperor to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy and installed Louis XVIII (younger brother of the executed Louis XVI) as King.

It did not take long before the bumbling and arrogant tactics of the new king alienated his subjects and motivated the exiled Emperor to make a new bid for power. On February 26, 1815 Napoleon escaped the Island of Elba and landed on the French coast near Cannes. Thousands of his old soldiers flocked to his banner as Napoleon marched to Paris. By the time he reached the capital his followers had grown to hundreds of thousands and Louis XVIII had fled north to what is present-day Belgium.

The Allies prepared to once again mass their forces for another attack on the French Emperor. This would take time, however. Only two Allied armies posed an immediate threat - a British force of 68,000 under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Army of 89,000 headed by Field Marshal Blucher - both encamped in the Southern Netherlands. Seizing the moment, Napoleon led his approximately 105,000 troops north with the aim of defeating his enemies individually before they could unite.

His efforts were initially successful. In a clash at Ligny on June 16, Napoleon routed the Prussians at a high cost. Napoleon then turned his attention to the British who made a stand at the small town of Waterloo a few miles south of Brussels. The stage was set for one of history's most famous battles.

On the morning of June 18, the two armies faced off against each other. However the incessant rains of the previous days had soaked the ground to a muddy quagmire hampering the movements of men, horses and artillery. This postponed the battle until midday when Napoleon opened up with an artillery barrage. The fighting seesawed back and forth throughout the day with high casualties on both sides. Towards evening Wellington's exhausted troops seemed on the verge of breaking, but the timely arrival of the Prussians reinvigorated their efforts and doomed Napoleon.

Napoleon fled to Paris where he abdicated for a second time on June 22 and was exiled to the desolate island of St. Helena in the mid-Atlantic.

Captain J.H. Gronow joined the British Army in 1813 at age 19. He served under the Duke of Wellington in Spain and in Belgium. We join his story on the morning of the battle:

"On the morning of the 18th the sun shone most gloriously, and so clear was the atmosphere that we could see the long, imposing lines of the enemy most distinctly. Immediately in front of the division to which I belonged, and, I should imagine, about half a mile from us, were posted cavalry and artillery and to the right and left the French had already engaged us, attacking Huguemont and La Haye Sainte. We heard incessantly the measured boom of artillery, accompanied by the incessant rattling echoes of musketry.

The whole of the British infantry not actually engaged were at that time formed into squares and as you looked along our lines, it seemed as if we formed a continuous wall of human beings. I recollect distinctly being able to see Bonaparte and his staff and some of my brother officers using the glass, exclaimed, 'There he is on his white horse.'

I should not forget to state that when the enemy's artillery began to play on us, we had orders to lie down, when we could hear the shot and shell whistling around us, killing and wounding great numbers then again we were ordered on our knees to receive cavalry. The French artillery - which consisted of three hundred guns, though we did not muster more than half that number - committed terrible havoc during the early part of the battle, whilst we were acting on the defensive."

The Battle
"About four P.M. the enemy's artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!' The word of command, 'Prepare to receive cavalry,' had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.

I should observe that just before this charge the duke entered by one of the angles of the square, accompanied only by one aide-de-camp all the rest of his staff being either killed or wounded. Our commander-in-chief, as far as I could judge, appeared perfectly composed but looked very thoughtful and pale.

The charge of the French cavalry was gallantly executed but our well-directed fire brought men and horses down, and ere long the utmost confusion arose in their ranks. The officers were exceedingly brave, and by their gestures and fearless bearing did all in their power to encourage their men to form again and renew the attack. The duke sat unmoved, mounted on his favourite charger. I recollect his asking the Hon. Lieut.-Colonel Stanhope what o'clock it was, upon which Stanhope took out his watch, and said it was twenty minutes past four. The Duke replied, 'The battle is mine and if the Prussians arrive soon, there will be an end of the war.' "

"It was about five o'clock on that memorable day, that we suddenly received orders to retire behind an elevation in our rear. The enemy's artillery had come up en masse within a hundred yards of us. By the time they began to discharge their guns, however, we were lying down behind the rising ground, and protected by the ridge before referred to.

The enemy's cavalry was in the rear of their artillery, in order to be ready to protect it if attacked but no attempt was made on our part to do so. After they had pounded away at us for about half an hour, they deployed, and up came the whole mass of the Imperial infantry of the Guard, led on by the Emperor in person. We had now before us probably about 20,000 of the best soldiers in France, the heroes of many memorable victories we saw the bearskin caps rising higher and higher as they ascended the ridge of ground which separated us, and advanced nearer and nearer to our lines.

It was at this moment the Duke of Wellington gave his famous order for our bayonet charge, as he rode along the line: these are the precise words he made use of - 'Guards, get up and charge!' We were instantly on our legs, and after so many hours of inaction and irritation at maintaining a purely defensive attitude - all the time suffering the loss of comrades and friends - the spirit which animated officers and men may easily be imagined. After firing a volley as soon as the enemy were within shot, we rushed on with fixed bayonets, and that hearty hurrah peculiar to British soldiers."


An end to the Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Waterloo brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars once and for all, finally thwarting Napoleon’s efforts to dominate Europe and bringing about the end of a 15-year period marked by near constant warring.

Of course, Napoleon had already been defeated a year earlier, only to escape exile in Elba and mount a stirring effort to revive his military aspirations over the course of the “Hundred Days”, a last gasp campaign that saw the outlawed French emperor lead the Armée du Nord into battle with the Seventh Coalition.

Even if his efforts were never likely to succeed, given the military mismatch his troops faced, the boldness of Napoleon’s revival undoubtedly set the stage for Waterloo’s dramatic denouement.


An in-depth guide to Waterloo medals

The historic Battle of Waterloo took place on 18 June 1815, in present-day Belgium near Brussels. The conflict saw the French Army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, go head to head with the Seventh Coalition &ndash a combined army which included British troops under the Duke of Wellington&rsquos command.

According to British military records, the Seventh Coalition was made up various states who had opposed Napoleon&rsquos return to power as French Emperor in 1815.

The coalition force comprised an army of 68,000 Anglo-Allies and 50,000 Prussians, who were led by Gebhard von Blücher.

After three days of intense fighting, Napoleon's 72,000-strong army were defeated at Waterloo, with 24,000 soldiers killed and up to 8,000 captured, bringing an end to his rule of the French Empire.

According to official war service records, the Anglo-Allied forces suffered 3,500 fatalities, more than 10,000 men were wounded and 3,300 were missing from a total of 68,000 troops.

During the aftermath of the bloody battle, which marked the end of Napoleon's &lsquoHundred Days&rsquo return from exile, the coalition forces entered France to help restore Louis XVIII to the throne, where he ruled for just under a decade before his death in 1824.

Napoleon subsequently abdicated, surrendered and was exiled to the tropical island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1821.

Interestingly, the Battle of Waterloo actually brought an end to a succession of wars which had littered Europe since the French Revolution in 1789, paving the way for a near 50-year period of European peace which lasted until the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853.

THE WATERLOO MEDAL&rsquoS HISTORY AND SIGNIFICANCE

The Waterloo Medal is an extremely important part of military history for the following four reasons.

1. It was issued to all soldiers present at the battle regardless of rank, making it the British Army&rsquos first &lsquotrue&rsquo campaign medal.

2. The medal was the first to be engraved with the soldier's name, rank and regiment around the edge - setting a precedent for all future awards.

3. The medal&rsquos design, metal and size was repeated on most future British campaign medals.

4. It was the first campaign medal awarded to the families and next-of-kin of soldiers killed in action.

At the time it was granted, the Waterloo medal was unpopular in the British Army because veterans of the Peninsula War felt such a public acknowledgement was unnecessary as they believed soldiers at the battle had simply done their duty.

Prior to this decision, the British military had proudly rebelled against the issuing of medals, a common practice among foreign armies.

In addition to the Waterloo medal, each soldier received two years extra service and pay in recognition for their efforts. They were widely referred to as &lsquoWaterloo Men&rsquo.

THE WATERLOO MEDAL&rsquoS DESIGN AND FEATURES

Originally, the plan was for Waterloo medals to be awarded in bronze, but this decision was overturned at a late stage and they were produced in solid silver, measuring 37mm (1.5 inches) in diameter.

The medal was designed by Thomas Wyon, Chief Engraver to the Royal Mint.

Obverse design: A left-facing effigy of Prince Regent with the inscription &ldquoGEORGE P. REGENT&rdquo &ndash rather than depicting the actual reigning but insane monarch King George III.

Reverse design: A figure of Victory seated on a plinth with the words "WATERLOO" and "JUNE 18 1815" below accompanied by "WELLINGTON" above.

Crimson ribbon with dark blue edges: Measuring 37mm wide (1.5 inches) and each stripe is of equal 7mm width &ndash creating a blue/crimson/blue ribbon pattern.

Ribbon Bar: There was no provision for this, with the medal itself to be worn in uniform at all times.

Recipient's name, unit and rank for everyone except privates: Impressed upon the medal&rsquos rim in large serif capitals with a series of star-shaped stamps filling the space at each end.

Suspender: A steel clip and large iron ring on top of the medal. Many recipients had more attractive and hard-wearing suspensions made privately as the original was prone to rust.

Clasps: None

WHICH NATIONS ISSUED THE WATERLOO MEDAL?

As well as the Waterloo Medal issued by the UK, six other nations also struck decorations for their troops who were part of the campaign.

Unfortunately, Belgium did not follow suit so their soldiers did not receive any official recognition for their efforts.

Prussian Campaign Medal, 1813-15, 1815 (Kriegsdenkmünze): Reportedly made from the captured brass French cannon, combatants received the round 1815 medal whilst non-combatants were awarded the oval version.

Hanoverian Waterloo Medal: The soldiers of Hanover were awarded a Waterloo Medal, whilst some of the King&rsquos German Legion troops received a British and Hanoverian medal.

Nassau Waterloo Medal: Awarded to the many Nassau troops who served in the Netherlands Army, who didn&rsquot issue a Waterloo Medal until much later in 1865.

Netherlands Silver Memorial Cross 1813-15 (Zilveren Herdenkingskruis): Awarded in 1865, Dutch soldiers had to wait until the 50th anniversary before their medal was produced.

Brunswick Waterloo Medal: Like the Prussian honour, this campaign medal was also believed to have been made from a captured brass French cannon.

Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg Medal, 1814-15: Common soldiers received an all-bronze medal, with gilted highlights added for NCOs and an all gilt bronze piece awarded to officers.

As you might expect, France did not issue any Waterloo medals after suffering defeat, but the St Helena Medal was issued in 1857 to the veterans who served in Napoleon&rsquos armies. Almost half a million of these are believed to have been issued.

WATERLOO MEDALS FOR SALE &ndash WHAT ARE THEY WORTH?

Waterloo Medals are much loved for the bravery and extremely personal connections they reflect from a gruelling campaign.

Collectors are often motivated by the provenance and personality behind the medals (rank, rarity, and regiment), rather than their quality and condition.

Medals with their natural patina and original silk ribbon, no matter how faded or frayed, are now being viewed as an affordable way to obtain a slice of military history.

In our experience, this is why some Waterloo Medals for sale in less than perfect condition are still highly sought after by both seasoned collectors and first-time buyers.

Back in March 2013, a Waterloo medal sold for £7,500 to an anonymous private collector from Lancashire &ndash three times its estimated price.

In April 2015, the 200th Anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo and the end of Napoleon Bonaparte&rsquos rule of France, an 1815 Waterloo Medal for sale at auction with Warwick & Warwick achieved £6,195.

The honour had been awarded to George Willett, of the 2nd Royal North British Regiment of Dragoons. Better known as The Scots Greys who were immortalised in a painting by Lady Butler of their charge at Waterloo (pictured below).

In recent years, we have seen Waterloo medals for sale with estimates from £1,600 right up to as much as £10,000. As is usually the case, these figures depend heavily on the recipient's rank and regiment.

If you own a Waterloo medal or collection which you&rsquod like to be valued, we would be more than happy to hear the fascinating story behind the original owner and regiment in which they served.

For a fast, accurate and free medal valuation, please get in touch or call 01926 499031 &ndash all estimates are issued without any obligation to sell.

If you're keen to learn more, see our How much are my medals worth? guide.

To browse all the medals we have for sale, visit our online auction catalogue now!

THE WATERLOO MEDAL IN SUMMARY

What campaign was it for? Victory at Waterloo.

When was it issued? 23 April 1816.

What&rsquos it made from? Silver, measuring 37mm (1.5 inches) in diameter.

What was it awarded for? Campaign service

Who was eligible? Everyone involved in battle at Ligny (16 June 1815), Quatre Bras (16 June 1815) and Waterloo (18 June 1815).

How many were awarded in total? 38,500 from the 39,000 produced.

Who was it designed by? Thomas Wyon, Chief Engraver to the Royal Mint.

What was the naming protocol? The recipient's name, rank and unit were impressed on the rim. A series of star-shaped stamps fill the space at each end.

What ribbon does it feature? Crimson ribbon measuring 37mm wide with dark blue edges of equal 7mm width.

How many clasps were issued? None.

What&rsquos it worth today? Waterloo medals can realise up to £10,000 depending on the recipient, provenance and history.


Today in History: The Battle of Waterloo

It is an unforgettable story of frantic marching, extreme weather, brutal fighting and extraordinary courage of those caught up in the last great battle of horse, musket and cannon shot. –Historian, Tim Clayton

Not all over

It was March 1815 and the European great powers thought that Napoleon was no longer a threat to peace on the continent. They had endured over 20 years of war and were now in Vienna, feasting, dancing, playing up and occasionally negotiating the future map of Europe.

However, they were jolted out of their revelry and increasing political disagreement by the news that Bonaparte had escaped from the Mediterranean island of Elba and was being welcomed back to France. It was time for the allies to get back in the saddle and unite against the common enemy.

A legacy of on-going war

From the mid 1790s France was the dominant power in Europe. Following the French revolution in 1789 which overthrew the corrupt and autocratic Bourbon dynasty, the European monarchies were terrified that the revolutionary contagion would spread.

They decided to invade France, but ultimately, lead by a young Corsican soldier, the French turned the tables. Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably one of the greatest military strategists of all time and it was under his leadership that France came to dominate Europe. He redrew the map of the continent and helped spread revolutionary ideas from Spain to Poland.

However, in 1812 he made his greatest mistake: invading Russia. Although he reached Moscow, Napoleon was forced to retreat in the freezing Russian winter and lost most of his army. Under the inspirational leadership of Czar Alexander I, the well organised and provisioned Russian forces drove the French back across Europe.

The end of the Napoleonic wars?

By 1814, the Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain, had defeated the French, exiled Napoleon to Elba and restored Louis XVIII to the throne of France. With the war seemingly over it was off to Vienna where a Congress was held to decide the future boundaries of Europe.

It was no easy task and in trying to distribute the spoils among themselves and nations that had supported them, they were soon at loggerheads. However, Napoleon’s return to France and overthrow of Louis XVIII, re-established the united front among the four powers.

Napoleon’s gamble

When his attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with the other powers failed, Napoleon realised that he would have to defeat the coalition on the battlefield to gain recognition of his renewed rule in France. He rebuilt the French army and headed north-east to confront the Allied forces.

His fate and the future of Europe would be decided on a small battlefield in Belgium. The epic battle was fought in an area of only 8km².

Napoloen had some early successes in minor engagements, defeating

However, both Coalition armies were able to withdraw in good order to fight another day. Surprisingly Napoleon failed to give instructions to harass the retreating Prussians, until it was too late.

The great general or the little corporal as many called him, was suffering from stomach cancer and his usual superb strategic instincts would often elude him in the coming days.

Wellington calls the shots

The Duke of Wellington led the main Allied army which consisted of thousands of Dutch, Belgian and Hanoverian troops as well as British divisions. Because Napoleon had to seek a battle, Wellington was able to choose the ground: near the village of Waterloo.

  • took the high ground
  • placed most of his troops behind a ridge
  • fortified two small settlements Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont on the slope of the ridge to allow cross fire on the advancing French
  • forced the French to attack up the ridge.

A lethal one day battle: 18 June 1815

The battle raged all day and had many twists and turns. The weather had been dreadful in the preceding days with heavy rain turning the battlefield into a quagmire. This made it difficult for troops to advance, for cavalry to ride easily and for cannon balls to bounce.

Infantry in those days advanced in tight columns, so that once the firing began the casualties were horrific. Musket rounds always shattered bones so if you were hit in the arms or legs it was automatic amputation, that’s if you made it back to the field station.

Casualties were horrific and in the space of 12 hours

  • the Allies lost c. 22,000 dead or wounded
  • the French lost c. 25,000 dead, wounded or captured.

The heroism of the combatants on both sides was extraordinary as they fought on in dense smoke and incredible noise. Understandably in this age before field telegraph and cellphones, it was very difficult for the generals to communicate. Also leaders on horseback were easy targets for sharpshooters. Much depended on the intiative of local commanders.

The outcome was in doubt until the early evening. After holding off the French infantry advances and cavalry sorties, Wellington’s forces were under pressure late in the day, especially when the French eventually captured the ferociously defended Hougoumont settlement.

Both sides were anticipating reinforcements.

  • Napoleon hoped Marshal Grouchy, who had chased after the Prussians a few days earlier, would arrive with his 30,000 strong army.
  • Wellington was expecting the 50,000 Prussian forces under General Blucher.

Then out of the smog behind the French and on their left flank, Blucher appeared in the nick of time. Blucher greeted Wellington with Mein lieber Kamerad! Quelle affaire! Napoleon was doomed.

The Duke of Wellington would later make this judgment of the battle “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”

The Waterloo legacy

This time Napoleon was banished to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Louis XVIII was again restored to the French throne and Russia, Austria, Britain and Prussia eventually redrew the map of Europe at Vienna.

The map would change drastically as the 19 th century progressed, but in the aftermath of Waterloo and the end of 26 years of on and off warfare, the great powers established a process of meeting to discuss major issues on the continent.

Although there were many revolutions and localised wars in Europe during the 19 th century, the great powers would not engage in a continent wide conflict until the horrendous war of 1914-18.

Our region was named after the Duke of Wellington, and naturally the city has a Waterloo Quay.

The Lion’s Mound (French: Butte du Lion, lit. “Lion’s Hillock/Knoll” Dutch: Leeuw van Waterloo) is one of the monuments around the historical battleground area in what is now Belgium. The engineer Jean-Baptiste Vifquain conceived of it as a symbol of the Allied victory rather than as glorifying any sole individual. (Wikimedia commons)


Alternate history: what if… Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon Bonaparte's final bid for power came to end with defeat at Waterloo in Belgium on 18 June 1815 at the hands of the Seventh Coalition – but what if he had won? Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Alan Forrest about whether Napoleon's victory at Waterloo would have been enough to secure a remarkable return to power – or if it would only have delayed the inevitable

This competition is now closed

Published: September 22, 2020 at 10:30 am

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Alan Forrest about what might had happened had Napoleon Bonaparte emerged triumphant at the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was over. A bloody battle. A dirty battle. A shifting battle, where both sides gained and lost momentum and the result could have gone either way. By the end of the day on 18 June 1815, thousands of men lay dead, and when the smoke cleared, it was Napoleon Bonaparte looking out across the battlefield as victor. His army had defeated the Duke of Wellington’s British-led forces on one side and Field Marshal von Blücher’s Prussians on the other, dealing the allies of the Seventh Coalition a severe blow…

From his abdication and exile a year earlier, Napoleon’s return to power in France had a winning start. Yet the war was far from over and he would have to decide where to head next. “If Napoleon had got rid of the British and Prussian armies at Waterloo, he might have marched on to Brussels,” says Professor Alan Forrest, historian of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. “That was where the road was most obviously leading.”

Had he returned to France to secure his domestic position and take a more defensive approach, Napoleon may have delayed the next battle. Decades of revolution, the Terror, and the rise and fall of his empire had left the country bitterly divided, though, and he could not rely on the citizenry for support, many of whom remained loyal to the republic or the monarchy. “In order to be a leader at all, Napoleon had to be a war leader.” says Forrest. “He was dependent on the army.”

More alternate history

That left Napoleon with major shortcomings both before and after Waterloo. As emperor of France up until 1814, he had been able to draw on the resources of Europe to build and sustain his army. Since returning from exile on Elba, he only had France. While many soldiers remained fiercely loyal to him, not everyone rushed to rally to the returned emperor. Napoleon had limited resources and his army suffered, notably in the quality of its commanders. “Michel Ney, in particular, was a brave man, but headstrong and liable to fling his troops into action without due consideration,” says Forrest.

The allied nations, meanwhile, were united against Napoleon. As he had launched a military campaign virtually right away, he only cemented beliefs among the likes of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia that he posed a danger to the security and peace of Europe. There was no way they could tolerate his return. What’s more, the desire for revenge would have been strong – the other powers held Napoleon responsible for wars dragging on and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Napoleon after Waterloo

Even following a victory at Waterloo, Napoleon could not have been as offensive as he once had. “Whereas previously he had been an emperor, in 1815 he wasn’t,” says Forrest. “He was an outlaw, with no legal status and, from that position, he had plunged Europe back into war.” The overwhelmingly larger forces commanded by the allies and the diplomatic determination of their leaders not to let Napoleon establish power once more, meant they were not going to make concessions. “The war would go on until Napoleon was defeated,” says Forrest.

The beaten Duke of Wellington probably would have played no further part in the ongoing fight against Napoleon. Instead of acting as a diplomatic representative of the allies – in Paris and at the Congress of Vienna – the mastermind of the Peninsular Campaign may have returned to Britain with his reputation tarnished. A promising political career that could have led all the way to him being prime minister would suffer without the upsurge of patriotic enthusiasm that followed a victory at Waterloo.

The prestige of Britain rested on the outcome of that battle, too. Defeat may have meant Britain was not taken as seriously as a military power on land in Europe – although, it would have remained the supreme naval power – and may have reduced its influence at future talks. “The four major allied powers had demobilised large parts of their army in 1814. Britain did this quite quickly,” says Forrest. “The country did not have a standing army in peacetime, was far more interested in the navy, and would have found it difficult to raise a large force again. Waterloo was Britain’s last fling.”

Even with Britain’s role diminished, Napoleon would have had no possibility of long-term success. While two armies may have been defeated at Waterloo, 150,000 Austrians and a larger force of Russians were, as Forrest puts it, “waiting their turn”. Napoleon would have faced battle after battle, with the other powers of the Seventh Coalition keeping on coming and closing in until he eventually lost. The peace may have taken a different form if Waterloo had gone differently, but Napoleon was always going to be on the losing side.

Napoleon’s fate would have depended on who eventually captured him, and if in 1815 he chose to surrender to Britain, it would have been because he believed that he would receive more lenient treatment. He would have had no reason to think that Prussia, Russia or Austria – where his wife and son were living at the imperial court – would treat him benignly. The worst outcome, however, would have been to surrender to the French themselves. “The monarchists wanted Napoleon’s blood. He was a usurper, a traitor to his king – many called for the death penalty.”

Instead of seeing out his days in exile on a remote island, Napoleon could have faced a firing squad.

The real rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte rose from a soldier in revolutionary France to commander of campaigns in Italy and Egypt, seizing power in a coup in 1799 and becoming the country’s leader at the age of 30. In 1804, he declared himself emperor.

A military mastermind, Napoleon seemed close to invincible on the battlefield until his disastrous Russian campaign in 1812, from which he never recovered. Forced to abdicate in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

In 1815, he staged a remarkable comeback, returning to France and taking power once more. A coalition of European powers – led by Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain – formed against him as he prepared to go on campaign. His brief second rule, The Hundred Days, ended with defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Napoleon was forced into exile again, this time on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.

Professor Alan Forrest is a historian of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and author of Napoleon, Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography. He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes


Annotation

At the Battle of Waterloo, Dickson (1789–1880) was a corporal in a Scottish cavalry troop. He had enlisted in 1807. His reminiscences of the battle were written down by relatives years later.

Mackenzie Macbride, ed., With Napoleon at Waterloo and other Unpublished Documents of the Waterloo and Pennsular Campaigns, 1911.

“Well, you all know that when I was a lad of eighteen, being a good Scotsman, I joined the Greys, the oldest regiment of dragoons in the British army, and our only Scottish cavalry corps.

“When news came that Napoleon Bonaparte had landed in France, we were sent across to Belgium post-haste, and there had a long rest, waiting for his next move. I remember how the trumpets roused us at four o'clock on the morning of Friday the 16th of June 1815, and how quickly we assembled and fell in!
“Three days' biscuits were served out to us and after long marches—for we did fifty miles that one day before we reached Quartre Bras—we joined the rest of our brigade under Sir William Ponsonby.

“Besides our regiment there were the 1st Royals and the Enniskillens, and we were known as the Union Brigade because, you see, it was made up of one English, one Irish and one Scots regiment.

“On the day before the great fight—that was Saturday, for you know the battle was fought on the Sunday morning, the 18th June—we were marched from Quatre Bras along the road towards Brussels. We thought our Iron Duke was taking us there but no. In a drenching rain we were told to halt and lie down away in a hollow to the right of the main road, among some green barley. Yes, how we trampled down the corn! The wet barley soon soaked us, so we set about making fires beside a cross-road that ran along the hollow in which we were posted. No rations were served that night. As we sat round our fire we heard a loud, rumbling noise about a mile away, and this we knew must be the French artillery and wagons coming up. It went rolling on incessantly all night, rising and falling like that sound just now of the wind in the chimney.

“One thing I must tell you: though there were more than seventy thousand Frenchmen over there, we never once saw a camp-fire burning all the night and until six o'clock next morning. Why they weren't allowed to warm themselves, poor fellows! I don't know. Well, about eleven o'clock that night a fearful storm burst over us. The thunder was terrible to hear. It was a battle-royal of the elements, as if the whole clouds were going to fall on us. We said it was a warning to Bonaparte that all nature was angry at him.

“Around the fires we soon fell asleep, for we were all worn out with our long march in the sultry heat of the day before.

“I was wakened about five o'clock by my comrade MacGee, who sprang up and cried, 'D___ your eyes, boys, there's the bugle!' 'Tuts, Jock!' I replied, 'it's the horses' chains clanking.' 'Clankin?' said he. 'What's that, then?' as a clear blast fell on our ears.

“After I had eaten my ration of 'stirabout'—oatmeal and water—I was sent forward on picket to the road two hundred yards in front, to watch the enemy. It was daylight, and the sun was every now and again sending bright flashes of light through the broken clouds. As I stood behind the straggling hedge and low beech-trees that skirted the high banks of the sunken road on both sides, I could see the French army drawn up in heavy masses opposite me. They were only a mile from where I stood but the distance seemed greater, for between us the mist still filled the hollows. There were great columns of infantry, and squadron after squadron of Cuirassiers, red Dragoons, brown Hussars, and green Lancers with little swallow-tail flags at the end of their lances. The grandest sight was a regiment of Cuirassiers dashing at full gallop over the brown of the hill opposite me, with the sun shining on their steel breastplates. It was a splendid show. Every now and then the sun lit up the whole country. No one who saw it could ever forget it.

“Between eight and nine there was a sudden roll of drums along the whole of the enemy's line, and a burst of music from the bands of a hundred battalions came to me on the wind. I seemed to recognize the 'Marseillaise,' but the sounds got mixed and lost in a sudden uproar that arose. Then every regiment began to move. They were taking up position for the battle. On our side perfect silence reigned but I saw that with us too preparations were being made. Down below me a regiment of Germans was marching through the growing corn to the support of others were were in possession of a farmhouse that lay between the two armies. This was the farm of La Haye Sainte, and it was near there that the battle raged fiercest. These brave Germans! They died to a man before the French stormed it, at the point of the bayonet, in the afternoon. A battery of artillery now came dashing along the road in fine style and passed in front of me. I think they were Hanoverians they were not British troops, but I don't remember whether they were Dutch or German. They drew up close by, about a hundred yards in front of the road. There were four guns. Then a strong brigade of Dutch and Belgians marched up with swinging, quick step, and turned off at a cross-road between high banks on to the plateau on the most exposed slope of our position. They numbered at least three thousand men, and looked well in their blue coats with orange-and-red facings. After this I rode up to a party of Highlanders under the command of Captain Ferrier, from Belsyde, Linlithgow, whom I knew to belong to the Ninety-second or 'Gay Gordons,' as we called them. All were intently watching the movements going on about them. They, with the Seventy-ninth Cameron Highlanders, the Forty-second (Black Watch), and First Royal Scots formed part of Picton's, 'Fighting Division.' They began to tell me about the battle at Quatre Bras two days before, when every regiment in brave old Picton's division had lost more than one-third of its men. The Gordons, they said, had lost half their number and twenty-five out of thirty-six officers. Little did we think that before the sun set that night not thirty men of our own regiment would answer the roll-call.

“I seem to remember everything as if it happened yesterday. After the village clocks had struck eleven the guns on the French center thundered out, and then musketry firing commenced away to the far right. The French were seen to be attacking a farmhouse there in force. It was called Hougoumont.

I noticed, just in front of me, great columns of infantry beginning to advance over the brow of the hill on their side of the valley, marching straight for us. Then began a tremendous cannonade from two hundred and fifty French guns all along the lines. The noise was fearful but just then a loud report rent the air, followed by a rolling cheer on our side, and our artillery got into action. We had one hundred and fifty guns in all but half of these belonged to the Dutch, Germans, or Belgians, who were hired to fight on our side. The French had about ten thousand men more than we had all that day, till, late in the afternoon, the Prussians arrived with forty thousand men to help us. I was now drawn back and joined our regiment, which was being moved forward to the left under better cover near a wood, as the shot and shell were flying about us and ploughing up the earth around. We had hardly reached our position when a great fusillade commenced just in front of us, and we saw the Highlanders moving up towards the road to the right. Then, suddenly, a great noise of firing and hisses and shouting commenced, and the whole Belgian brigade, of those whom I had seen in the morning, came rushing along and across the road in full flight. Our men began to shout and groan at them too. They had bolted almost without firing a shot, and left the brigade of Highlanders to meet the whole French attack on the British left center. It was thought that the Belgians were inclined towards Napoleon's cause, and this must account for their action, as they have shown high courage at other times.

“Immediately after this, the General of the Union Brigade, Sir William Ponsonby, came riding up to us on a small bay hack. I remember that his groom with his chestnut charger could not be found. Beside him was his aide-de-camp, De Lacy Evans. He ordered us forward to within fifty years of the beech-hedge by the roadside. I can seen him now in his long cloak and great cocked hat as he rode up to watch the fighting below. From our new position we could descry the three regiments of Highlanders, only a thousand in all, bravely firing down on the advancing mass of Frenchmen. These numbered thousands, and those on our side of the Brussels road were divided into three solid columns. I have read since that there were fifteen thousand of them under Count D'Erlon spread over the clover, barley, and rye fields in front of our center, and making straight for us. Then I saw the Brigadier, Sir Denis Pack, turn to the Gordons and shout out with great energy, 'Ninety-second, you must advance! All in front of you have given way.' The Highlanders, who had begun the day by solemnly chanting 'Scots wha hae' as they prepared their morning meal, instantly, with fixed bayonets, began to press forward through the beech and holly hedge to a line of bushes that grew along the face of the slope in front. They uttered loud shouts as they ran forward and fired a volley at twenty yards into the French.

“At this moment our General and his aide-de-camp rode off to the right by the side of the hedge then suddenly I saw De Lacy Evans wave his hat, and immediately our colonel, Inglis Hamilton, shouted out, 'Now then, Scots Greys, charge!' and, waving his sword in the air, he rode straight at the hedges in front, which he took in grand style. At once a great cheer rose from our ranks, and we too waved our swords and followed him. I dug my spur into my brave old Rattler, and we were off like the wind. Just then I saw Major Hankin fall wounded. I felt a strange thrill run through me, and I am sure my noble beast felt the same, for, after rearing for a moment, she sprang forward, uttering loud neighings and snortings, and leapt over the holly-hedge at a terrific speed. It was a grand sight to see the long line of giant grey horses dashing along with flowing manes and heads down, tearing up the turf about them as they went. The men in their red coats and tall bearskins were cheering loudly, and the trumpeters were sounding the 'Charge.' Beyond the first hedge the road was sunk between high, sloping banks, and it was a very difficult feat to descend without falling but there were very few accidents, to our surprise.

“All of us were greatly excited, and began crying, 'Hurrah, Ninety-Second! Scotland for ever!' as we crossed the road. For we heard the Highland pipers playing among the smoke and firing below, and I plainly saw my old friend Pipe-Major Cameron standing apart on a hillock coolly playing 'Johnny Cope, are ye wakin' yet?' in all the din.

“Our colonel went on before us, past our guns and down the slope, and we followed we saw the Royals and Enniskillens clearing the road and hedges at full gallop away to the right.
“Before me rode young Armour, our rough-rider from Mauchline (a near relative of Jean Armour, Robbie Burns's wife), and Sergeant Ewart on the right, at the end of the line beside our cornet, Kinchant. I rode in the second rank. As we tightened our grip to descend the hillside among the corn, we could make out the feather bonnets of the Highlanders, and heard the officers crying out to them to wheel back by sections. A moment more and we were among them. Poor fellows! some of them had not time to get clear of us, and were knocked down. I remember one lad crying out, 'Eh! but I didna think ye wad ha'e hurt me sae.'

“They were all Gordons, and as we passed through them they shouted, 'Go at them, the Greys! Scotland for ever!' My blood thrilled at this, and I clutched my saber tighter. Many of the Highlanders grasped our stirrups, and in the fiercest excitement dashed with us into the fight. The French were uttering loud, discordant yells. Just then I saw the first Frenchman. A young officer of Fusiliers made a slash at me with his sword, but I parried it and broke his arm the next second we were in the thick of them. We could not see five yards ahead for the smoke. I stuck close by Armour Ewart was now in front.
“The French were fighting like tigers. Some of the wounded were firing at us as we passed and poor Kinchant, who had spared one of these rascals, was himself shot by the officer he had spared. As we were sweeping down a steep slope on top of them, they had to give way. Then those in front began to cry out for 'quarter,' throwing down their muskets and taking off their belts. The Gordons at this rushed in and drove the French to the rear. I was now in the front rank, for many of ours had fallen. It was here that Lieutenant Trotter, from Morton Hall, was killed by a French officer after the first rush on the French. We now came to an open space covered with bushes, and then I saw Ewart, with five or six infantry men about him, slashing right and left at him. Armour and I dashed up to these half-dozen Frenchmen, who were trying to escape with one of their standards. I cried to Armour to 'Come on!' and we rode at them. Ewart had finished two of them, and was in the act of striking a third man who held the Eagle next moment I saw Ewart cut him down, and he fell dead. I was just in time to thwart a bayonet-thrust that was aimed at the gallant sergeant's neck. Armour finished another of them.“

Our host here pointed out to his little company of intent listeners a print of the well-known picture of the incident which hung on the wall, and of which he was very proud then he continued:

“Almost single-handed, Ewart had captured the Imperial Eagle of the 45th `Invincibles,' which had led them to victory at Austerlitz and Jena. Well did he merit the commission he received at the hands of the Prince Regent shortly afterwards, and the regiment has worn a French Eagle ever since.

“We cried out, 'Well done, my boy!' and as others had come up, we spurred on in search of a like success. Here it was that we came upon two batteries of French guns which had been sent forward to support the infantry. They were now deserted by the gunners and had sunk deep in the mud.

“We were saluted with a sharp fire of musketry, and again found ourselves beset by thousands of Frenchmen. We had fallen upon a second column they were also Fusiliers. Trumpeter Reeves of our troop, who rode by my side, sounded a 'Rally,' and our men came swarming up from all sides, some Enniskillens and Royals being amongst the number. We at once began a furious onslaught on this obstacle, and soon made an impression the battalions seemed to open out for us to pass through, and so it happened that in five minutes we had cut our way through as many thousands of Frenchmen.

“We had now reached the bottom of the slope. There the ground was slippery with deep mud. Urging each other on, we dashed towards the batteries on the ridge above, which had worked such havoc on our ranks. The ground was very difficult, and especially where we crossed the edge of a ploughed field, so that our horses sank to the knees as we struggled on. My brave Rattler was becoming quite exhausted, but we dashed ever onwards.

“At this moment Colonel Hamilton rode up to us crying, 'Charge! charge the guns!' and went off like the wind up the hill towards the terrible battery that had made such deadly work among the Highlanders. It was the last we saw of our colonel, poor fellow! His body was found with both arms cut off. His pockets had been rifled. I once heard Major Clarke tell how he saw him wounded among the guns of the great battery, going at full speed, and with the bridle-reins between his teeth, after he had lost his hands.

“Then we got among the guns, and we had our revenge. Such slaughtering! We sabred the gunners, lamed the horses, and cut their traces and harness. I can hear the Frenchmen yet crying 'Diable!' when I struck at them, and the long-drawn hiss through their teeth as my sword went home. Fifteen of their guns could not be fired again that day. The artillery drivers sat on their horses weeping aloud as we went among them they were mere boys, we thought.

“Rattler lost her temper and bit and tore at everything that came in her way. She seemed to have got new strength. I had lost the plume of my bearskin just as we went through the second infantry column a shot had carried it away. The French infantry were rushing past us in disorder on their way to the rear, Armour shouted to me to dismount, for old Rattler was badly wounded. I did so just in time, for she fell heavily the next second. I caught hold of a French officer's horse and sprang on her back and rode on.

“Then we saw a party of horsemen in front of us on the rising ground near a farmhouse. There was 'the Little Corporal' himself, as his veterans called Bonaparte. It was not till next night, when our men had captured his guide, the Belgian La Coste, that we learned what the Emperor thought of us. On seeing us clear the second column and commence to attack his eighty guns on the center, he cried out, 'These terrible Greys, how they fight!' for you know that all our horses, dear old Rattler among them, fought that day as angrily as we did. I never saw horses become so ferocious, and woe betide the blue coats that came in their way! But the noble beasts were now exhausted and quite blown, so that I began to think it was time to get clear away to our own lines again.

“But you can imagine my astonishment when down below, on the very ground we had crossed, appeared at full gallop a couple of regiments of Cuirassiers on the right, and away to the left a regiment of Lancers. I shall never forget the sight. The Cuirassiers, in their sparkling steel breastplates and helmets, mounted on strong black horses, with great blue rugs across the croups, were galloping towards me, tearing up the earth as they went, the trumpets blowing wild notes in the midst of the discharges of grape and canister shot from the heights. Around me there was one continuous noise of clashing arms, shouting of men, neighing and moaning of horses. What were we to do? Behind us we saw masses of French infantry with tall fur hats coming up at the double, and between us and our lines these cavalry. There being no officers about, we saw nothing for it but to go straight at them and trust to Providence to get through. There were half-a-dozen of us Greys and about a dozen of the Royals and Enniskillens on the ridge. We all shouted, 'Come on, lads that's the road home!' and, dashing our spurs into our horses' sides, set off straight for the Lancers. But we had no chance. I saw the lances rise and fall for a moment, and Sam Tar, the leading man of ours, go down amid the flash of steel. I felt a sudden rage at this, for I knew the poor fellow well he was a corporal in our troop. The crash as we met was terrible the horses began to rear and bite and neigh loudly, and then some of our men got down among their feet, and I saw them trying to ward off the lances with their hands. Cornet Sturges of the Royals—he joined our regiment as lieutenant a few weeks after the battle—came up and was next to me on the left, and Armor on the right. 'Stick together, lads!' we cried, and went at it with a will, slashing about us right and left over our horses' necks. The ground around us was very soft, and our horses could hardly drag their feet out of the clay. Here again I came to the ground, for a Lancer finished my new mount, and I thought I was done for. We were returning past the edge of the ploughed field, and then I saw a spectacle I shall never forget. There lay brave old Ponsonby, the General of our Union Brigade, beside his little bay, both dead. His long, fur-lined coat had blown aside, and at his hand I noticed a miniature of a lady and his watch beyond him, our Brigade-Major, Reignolds of the Greys. They had both been pierced by the lancers a few moments before we came up. Near them was lying a lieutenant of ours, Carruthers of Annandale. My heart was filled with sorrow at this, but I dared not remain for a moment. It was just then I caught sight of a squadron of British Dragoons making straight for us. The Frenchmen at that instant seemed to give way, and in a minute more we were safe! The Dragoons gave us a cheer and rode on after the Lancers. They were the men of our 16th Light Dragoons, of Vandeleur's Brigade, who not only saved us but threw back the Lancers into the hollow.

“How I reached our lines I can hardly say, for the next thing I remember is that I was lying with the sole remnants of our brigade in a position far away to the right and rear of our first post. I was told that a third horse that I caught was so wounded that she fell dead as I was mounting her.

“Wonderful to relate Rattler had joined the retreating Greys, and was standing in line riderless when I returned. You can imagine my joy at seeing her as she nervously rubbed shoulders with her neighbors. Major Cheney (who had five horses killed under him) was mustering our men, and with him were Lieutenant Wyndham (afterwards our colonel) and Lieutenant Hamilton, but they were both wounded. There were scarcely half a hundred of the Greys left out of the three hundred who rode off half an hour before. How I escaped is a miracle, for I was through the thick of it all, and received only two slight wounds, one from a bayonet and the other from a lance, and the white plume of my bearskin was shot away. I did not think much of the wounds at the time, and did not report myself but my poor Rattler had lost much blood from a lance-wound received in her last encounter.

“Every man felt that the honor of our land was at stake, and we remembered that the good name of our great Duke was entrusted to us too but our main thought was, 'What will they say of us at home?' It was not till afterwards that we soldiers learned what the Union Brigade had done that day, for a man in the fighting-ranks sees little beyond the sweep of his own sword. We had pierced three columns of fifteen thousand men, had captured two Imperial Eagles, and had stormed and rendered useless for a time more than forty of the enemy's cannon. Besides, we had taken nearly three thousand prisoners, and, when utterly exhausted, had fought our way home through several regiments of fresh cavalry. That, my friends, is why, from the Prince Regent to the poorest peasant, from the palace to the lowliest cottage, the name of the Union Brigade was honored throughout the land."


Napoleon’s Dreams of Empire

Born August 15, 1769, to a gentry family on the island of Corsica, Napoleon attended a military school in France and joined the artillery service at the age of 16. His strategic skills, personal bravery and political connections allowed him to rise quickly to the rank of general in the tumultuous period of the French Revolution, 1789–1799. On Nov. 9, 1799, he was named “First Consul” of France and consecrated as emperor on December 2, 1804.

Beginning with the Battle of Montenotte in Italy (April 12, 1796) in which he defeated an Allied Austrian-Piedmontese Army, Napoleon established his reputation as a great strategist and commander through a series of campaigns that planted the French flag throughout most of Europe and parts of North Africa and the Mideast. Though he sometimes suffered setbacks and defeats, he became the most feared man in Europe, time and again winning battles against the odds. After he lost much of his Grande Armee on the desolate steppes of Russia in 1812, the French were gradually forced back by a coalition of European armies. On April 6, 1814, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to live out his life under guard on the island of Elba off Italy.


The Battle of Waterloo

As the French troops advanced, heavy fighting began in the vicinity of Hougoumont. Defended by British troops as well as those from Hanover and Nassau, the chateau was viewed by some on both sides as key to commanding the field. One of the few parts of the fight that he could see from his headquarters, Napoleon directed forces against it throughout the afternoon and the battle for the chateau became a costly diversion. As the fighting raged at Hougoumont, Ney worked to push forward the main assault on the Coalition's lines. Driving ahead, d'Erlon's men were able to isolate La Haye Sainte but did not take it.

Attacking, the French had success in pushing back the Dutch and Belgian troops in Wellington's front line. The attack was slowed by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton's men and counterattacks by the Prince of Orange. Outnumbered, the Coalition infantry was hard-pressed by D'Erlon's corps. Seeing this, the Earl of Uxbridge led forward two brigades of heavy cavalry. Slamming into the French, they broke up d'Erlon's attack. Carried forward by their momentum, they drove past La Haye Sainte and assaulted the French grand battery. Counterattacked by the French, they withdrew having taken heavy losses.

Having been thwarted in this initial assault, Napoleon was forced to dispatch Lobau's corps and two cavalry divisions east to block the approach of the advancing Prussians. Around 4:00 PM, Ney mistook the removal of Coalition casualties for the beginnings of a retreat. Lacking infantry reserves after d'Erlon's failed attack, he ordered cavalry units forward to exploit the situation. Ultimately feeding around 9,000 horsemen into the attack, Ney directed them against the coalition lines west of Le Haye Sainte. Forming defensive squares, Wellington's men defeated numerous charges against their position.

Though the cavalry failed to break the enemy's lines, it allowed d'Erlon to advance and finally take La Haye Sainte. Moving up artillery, he was able to inflict heavy losses on some of Wellington's squares. To the southeast, General Friedrich von Bülow's IV Corps began to arrive on the field. Pushing west, he intended to take Plancenoit before attacking the French rear. While sending men to link up with Wellington's left, he attacked Lobau and drove him out of the village of Frichermont. Supported by Major General Georg Pirch's II Corps, Bülow attacked Lobau at Plancenoit forcing Napoleon to send reinforcements from the Imperial Guard.

As the fighting raged, Lieutenant General Hans von Zieten's I Corps arrived on Wellington's left. This allowed Wellington to shift men to his embattled center as the Prussians took over the fight near Papelotte and La Haie. In an effort to win a quick victory and exploit the fall of La Haye Sainte, Napoleon ordered forward elements of the Imperial Guard to assault the enemy center. Attacking around 7:30 PM, they were turned back by a determined Coalition defense and a counterattack by Lieutenant General David Chassé's division. Having held, Wellington ordered a general advance. The Guard's defeat coincided with Zieten overwhelming d'Erlon's men and driving on the Brussels Road.

Those French units that remained intact attempted to rally near La Belle Alliance. As the French position in the north collapsed, the Prussians succeeded in capturing Plancenoit. Driving forward, they encountered French troops fleeing from the advancing Coalition forces. With the army in full retreat, Napoleon was escorted from the field by the surviving units of the Imperial Guard.


What is the significance of Waterloo?

Alan Forrest, professor of modern history at the University of York, considers whether the importance placed upon the battle is justified.

This competition is now closed

Published: June 17, 2019 at 1:50 pm

When they are examined with the benefit of hindsight, battles are rarely accorded the significance given to them. Few become venerated among a nation’s lieux de mémoire, or contribute to the foundation myths of modern nations. Of the battles of the Napoleonic Wars, it is arguable that Leipzig [the 1813 battle lost to the Allies by French troops under Napoleon] has its place in the rise of German nationalism, even if its real importance was greatly exaggerated and mythologized by 19th-century cultural nationalists. In Pierre Nora’s magisterial study of France, only Bouvines, in 1214 [which ended the 1202–14 Anglo-French War], makes the cut. Waterloo, unsurprisingly, does not figure.

Yet at the time Waterloo was hailed in Britain as a battle different in scale and import from any other of the modern era. It had, it was claimed, ushered in a century of peace in continental Europe. It had brought to a close, in Britain’s favour, the centuries-old military rivalry with France. And it had ended France’s dream of building a great continental empire in Europe, while leaving Britain’s global ambitions intact. If the Victorian age could be claimed as ‘Britain’s century’, it was her victory over Napoleon that had ushered it in. Britain, it seemed, had every reason to celebrate, every reason to claim Waterloo as its own.

But does this really justify the importance that the British attached to this one battle? Waterloo was a decisive encounter that left Napoleon’s army routed and incapable of re-forming, but it did not determine the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars or change the course of history. The Hundred Days were perhaps a stirring military adventure, at least from the French standpoint, but the Waterloo campaign was a mere codicil to what had gone before, to more than 20 years of war. Besides, Napoleon could have won at Waterloo and still lost the campaign: huge Austrian and Prussian forces lay in wait to the east. The outcome had already been decided by the Allied leaders and their diplomats long before the firing began.

Where Waterloo did play a greater role was in determining the outcome of the peace negotiations that followed negotiations that were far tougher for the defeated French than those the previous year after Napoleon’s first abdication. Further territory changed hands a huge indemnity was imposed and an army of occupation was imposed on France until that indemnity was paid.

French civilians were made well aware of the scale of Napoleon’s defeat, and of the conviction across Europe that he alone bore full responsibility for the final phase of the war. Just as important, from Britain’s point of view, was the fact that it was now present at the peace negotiations as one of the major players – a country whose army had won a land campaign against Napoleon, and hence was better placed to press for its interests to be protected in the final peace settlement.

That, for Wellington as for the British government, was probably Waterloo’s principal importance, the justification for spilling so much blood, and it contributed to the jubilation that greeted the news of Napoleon’s defeat. Poems and novels celebrated the battle paintings recorded the scene for posterity and across Britain and the Empire the names of Waterloo and its hero were immortalised in cities, suburbs, streets, columns, victory arches and railway stations [although Waterloo Station, which opened in 1848, was only indirectly named after the battle – it was named after Waterloo Bridge (1817), which in turn was named after the battle].

In the weeks that followed, Britons crossed the Channel to stare across the battlefield. The following year, Britons could watch military reviews or attend shows about the battle at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in London or in the newly fashionable panoramas that opened across the nation. The British, it appeared, could not have enough of Waterloo. They claimed it as a uniquely British victory a victory for British arms and peculiarly British military values.

Elsewhere in Europe the jury was still out. It was not immediately hailed as a great battle or an iconic moment. There remained an uncertainty about the real significance of Waterloo that is shown by the somewhat mixed memories that it evoked in the countries that had contributed soldiers to the battle.

Of course, the Allies all praised their successful generals and gave thanks for the sacrifice of their men (the level of sacrifice at Waterloo, for a battle that was contained within a single day’s fighting, was quite extraordinarily high: this had been a bloody, bludgeoning encounter between two armies that pounded each other mercilessly for most of the day before the arrival of Blücher’s Prussians in the late afternoon swung the odds irresistibly Wellington’s way).

They named some streets and squares after the battle, and there were a few public monuments – like the Waterloo column in Hanover, or the Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, or (using the name by which Prussians knew the battle) the Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. Waterloo was not forgotten. But it did not hold that central place in the national imagination that it did for 19th-century Britain.

In Holland, for instance, Waterloo was seen as a dynastic triumph for the House of Orange, which was not only restored to the throne after the Napoleonic Wars, but also enjoyed the kudos that came with the annexation of the former Spanish territories of Belgium [they stopped being Spanish-held a century earlier, in 1713]. Waterloo for the Dutch was forever associated with their prince Willem [aka William], who had led part of Wellington’s army and had been wounded, albeit fairly lightly, in the course of the day. The Lion Mound on the battlefield, erected in 1826, is Holland’s memorial to a Dutch hero.

And if Hanover, elevated to a kingdom in 1814, honoured the part played in the battle by the King’s German Legion, across Prussia Waterloo had to take its place in the more general celebration of Blücher and his role in the wars against Napoleon. But Waterloo was no more than a footnote to the battle of the Nations in 1813. It was Leipzig that continued to hold centre stage in the public’s imagination.

As we look around Europe on the Bicentenary of Waterloo, it is impossible not to be struck by the plasticity of public memory, and the degree to which, in each succeeding generation, it is made to reflect current political concerns. Wellington himself manipulated the memory of the battle, and of his own role in it, to help further his political career. By the early 20th century, with a different system of alliances across Europe, it could seem impolitic to celebrate a victory over the French too insensitively.

At the time of the centenary in 1915, the British were eager to stress the courage and gallantry of the French, who had become their allies in the struggle against Germany. Today, allies in a European Union that was created with the express aim of ensuring future peace – neither France nor Germany shows much appetite for celebrating military triumphs won at the other’s expense. Perhaps Britain, too, can now commemorate Waterloo not for the death and destruction it wreaked, but rather for the decades of peace that it heralded across Europe – peace that held for the greater part of a generation until the conflict in the Crimea in the 1850s.

Alan Forrest is the author of Waterloo: Great Battles Series (Oxford University Press). He is professor of modern history at the University of York.

This article was first published by History Extra in June 2015


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