June is a big month for historical anniversaries. Last week, I wrote about the 800th birthday of Magna Carta – the medieval charter that’s often described as seminal to the development of parliamentary democracy. This week, it’s the Battle of Waterloo, the clash that finally ended the Napoleonic era. It all happened on June 18, 1815.
And, by any standards, what transpired that day near the village of Waterloo, in what’s now Belgium, was truly fearsome. Or perhaps gruesome would be a more apt description.
Over 190,000 men converged on the battlefield, giving rise to around 55,000 casualties – killed, wounded, or otherwise missing in action. Michael Crumplin, curator and archivist at the Royal College of Surgeons, estimates that the British alone performed about 2,000 battlefield amputations, all of which were carried out without modern anaesthesia. At about 15 minutes per patient, the horrific nature of the process was exceeded only by the dreaded alternative of death from gangrene.
Initially, Napoleon’s force enjoyed a small numerical advantage over the Allied army commanded by the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington. And in contrast to Wellington’s somewhat inexperienced mixture of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch and German troops, the French were all blooded veterans. Taken in conjunction with Napoleon’s reputation as the most talented general since Julius Caesar, this should have clinched the deal.
But it didn’t. Somehow, Napoleon’s mojo deserted him that day. He himself subsequently described the outcome as “incomprehensible,” adding that “In war, the game is always with him who commits the fewest faults.” And on June 18, 1815, he wasn’t that person.
Of course, there was also the arrival – several hours into the battle – of Allied reinforcements in the form of Gebhard von Blucher’s 50,000 Prussians, a development which the cautious Wellington had banked on but Napoleon had discounted. It was a terrifying coup de grace, exemplified by the image of fleeing French infantry being hunted down by mounted Prussian lancers with eight-foot spears.
To many, Waterloo was more than an ultimately decisive battle in a long war, or an event that set the table for the 19th century European order. It was also a clash of opposites: Wellington’s prudent competence versus Napoleon’s imaginative flair; British stoicism against French passion; and established tradition resisting radical revolution.
Beyond that, English Tory historian Andrew Roberts believes that it all came out the wrong way. In his reckoning, Britain should have stood aside from the conflict, and “European civilization would have benefited inestimably” if Napoleon hadn’t been defeated at Waterloo.
The Roberts argument is threefold.
First, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions were no longer operative by the time he returned from his brief exile in 1815. From then on, he’d have been prepared to confine his activities to France.
Second, Britain’s interest lay in overseas trade and empire rather than continental European possessions. As such, overwhelming naval power and unchallenged control of the oceans were what mattered, which was something that Napoleon circa 1815 no longer posed a threat to.
And third, whatever his faults, Napoleon was a more enlightened figure than the autocratic rulers of Prussia, Austria and Russia. Continental Europe, therefore, would have benefited from a situation where Napoleonic France was the preponderant power.
But interesting as they may be, scenarios of this nature collide with an inexorable historical reality. Simply put, there was no way in which the British were going to stand down and allow Napoleon to re-establish his position.
For one thing, British policy towards Europe had long been premised on the concept of maintaining a balance of power. No state, particularly France, could be trusted with overwhelming continental domination. And, his current protestations notwithstanding, Napoleon had form in that regard.
Further, it was a mere 10 years since the serious prospect of a French invasion had loomed. Declaring that “The Channel is a ditch which will be crossed when someone has the boldness to try it,” Napoleon had assembled an Army of England, 165,000 strong, for the invasion. And the British took the threat very seriously, with hundreds of thousands enlisting in local defense militias and 168 fortifications – the round Martello towers – being built along the coast.
In the grand scheme of things, Napoleon was undoubtedly a more talented figure than Wellington, both militarily and otherwise. Occasionally, though, the tortoise actually whacks the hare. Life’s like that.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.