This month marks the 204th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a battle which is often described as changing the future of European history. It was Napoleon's last battle, a crushing defeat, but also, to use Wellington's own words 'A near run thing'. (He even said 'I don't think it would have done if I had not been there!). More recently though, historians have started to question Waterloo, and its significance. Charles Esdaile, for example has described Waterloo as 'A Glorious Irrelevance' as a battle with the same kind of impact would have happened at some point anyway. So why does Waterloo matter?
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The historical context has been addressed.
But why does it matter to me? Well, so 4 decades of reading, the investment in over a 1,000 books and magazines as well as several visits still mean something you mean?
Of all the campaigns and battles in our period, it was brief, self contained and easy to understand. There is a definitive and dramatic result. In short, it is accessible.
Waterloo was a full-stop. It permitted Britain to stand on the field and defeat Napoleon with their allies. Without that, you would have had as Napoleon claimed still in St Helena that the British were poor soldiers lead by poor generals. As shown in my book, "Becke Waterloo Logistics," Napoleon did not have an army that could have defeated the Allies. His logistics again were so poor and his misunderstanding of the fortitude of the Prussians. In 1813-14, they had been defeated and always come back again the next day. It is clearly shown that Grouchy could never have arrived on the battlefield of Waterloo in time.
Waterloo addresses several issues in history. It was virtually the end of a crippling 23-year long war against Republican and Napoleonic France. It took place during the burgeoning industrial power of Britain (and other nations) and established Britain as a world power. It preceded many subsequent European revolutions. Waterloo itself was a pretty sanguinary affair taking place over a small area of ground. Quite importantly, it has provided historians with much cause for debate and revisionism such as the importance of the campaign, individual roles of the Allied forces in the victory, the reasons for Bonaparte's failure, tactical positions of units and timing of events, debates on casualty rates etc. Some arguments and conclusions inevitably have been well-founded, some less so! Overall, the recent bicentenary and publications produced thereabouts (including Hussey and Glover's splendid works and Robert's biography of Bonaparte!) have left us all better informed, despite there still remaining some clouded issues.
Waterloo was the full stop for the adventurer and opportunist Napoleon. His last successful campaign was 1809. Certainly the contributions before Waterloo are essential to understand.
I don't think there's any doubt that the impact of Waterloo was probably strongest on the British (and French) national psyche, although it had political impact in the sense of strengthening Britain's position at the peace table. But it did mark the end of a very, very long series of wars; there were, after all, many people, even adults, in 1815 who would barely be able to remember a time when there wasn't at least tension between Britain and France.
I really liked Alan Forrest's little 2015 book, which explores the cultural impact of Waterloo on the various nations involved in it: an easy read and one that, I think, goes some way to explain why a battle that was little more than Napoleon's last 'hurrah' has become so important in Britain (and why it hasn't elsewhere!).
Why does Waterloo matter? Well, my firm belief is that Napoleon was done for anyway, so in one sense it really doesn’t. That said, it put an early end to the lunacy of the 100 Days and thereby saved thousands of lives.
A memorial to your humble correspondent at Waterloo? Now there’s a thought ... As for the Victor Hugo monument, it is my dearest hope that a massive juggernaut - preferably British, German or Dutch - will one day career into it at full speed and lay it low!
The Bicentenary has given us an opportunity to recall the significant loss of life and suffering endured by many men of all forces engaged. Such a subject may be hard to digest and study, but many students of this conflict pay little enough heed to it. We now have a unique military surgical museum at Ferme de Mont St Jean, where thousands of men were treated during and after the battle.
A number of years ago, I was asked precisely this question in front of a camera as part of a Public Outreach course on the battle. I wasn't all that articulate, and should clarify some of the things I said, but here are my thoughts....