The destination for history

The historical background to the Battle of Waterloo


In seeking to understand the Allies’ motives for wishing to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo one must examine, if only in brief, the wars spawned by the French Revolution in 1792 which, apart from a short period of peace between March 1802 and May 1803, finally came to an end in the spring of 1814.

The first phase of this fighting, known as the Revolutionary Wars, arose out of principally two requirements of the new republic: one ideological and the other strategic. In the case of the former, the French sought to spread the principles of the Revolution abroad, specifically by appealing to the populations of the Low Countries, Switzerland, the Rhineland and northern Italy to throw off, as the revolutionaries characterised it, the yoke of monarchical despotism which represented the tyranny, corruption and system of privilege which the French themselves had cast off in the first years of social and political turmoil following the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Having seized that great fortress and prison – the very symbol of monarchical oppression – the revolutionaries had established a national assembly and eventually curbed the powers of the king, Louis XVI, later declaring a republic, adopting a series of constitutions and, finally, executing their monarch in January 1793 – as much to hail the triumphs of the Revolution as to offend the crowned heads of Europe, many of whom, by that time, had already seen the Revolution for what it was – a threat to their ideological well-being and the principle of legitimacy. Appreciating, too, that so much power as that gathered in the hands of men perceived as dangerous to European security – quite apart from the obvious threat to monarchical rule – Austria, Prussia, Holland, Spain and numerous smaller states went to war with France as early as April 1792.

The combined strength of this, the First Coalition, ought to have crushed the Revolution in short order; but through bungled strategy, competing war aims, indecisiveness and military incompetence in the face of the new, energetic and above all massive conscripted armies of the French republic, the Allied powers repeatedly failed to bring the revolutionaries to heel, forming in fact two impressive coalitions in the decade between 1792 and 1802 without accomplishing more than enabling France to expand her borders to an extent never even dreamed of by Louis XIV: the whole of the Low Countries, the west bank of the Rhine, the Alps (thus including parts of northwest Italy) and the Pyrenees – the so-called natural frontiers. In fact, there was nothing ‘natural’ about them at all, apart from the southern frontier with Spain, which had remained more or less unchanged for centuries. The French, not content merely to defend their own soil against, admittedly, those bent on the destruction of what amounted to wholesale improvements in the political, social and economic lives of millions of French citizens, took possession by force of arms these vast swathes of new territory, justifying these extraordinary conquests on the cynical basis that annexation, occupation or the imposition of some form of dependent status on the conquered inevitably benefitted them all. Who, the argument ran, could fail to appreciate the advantages bestowed by the Revolution? Accordingly, where neighbouring lands escaped outright annexation, they found themselves controlled either directly or indirectly from Paris – not quite akin to the Eastern European experience of Soviet control in the wake of the Second World War – but something of a precursor to that phenomenon. Those states with the temerity to oppose the ‘liberators’ paid a heavy price: military intervention, forced requisitioning, the imposition of indemnities and, in many cases, outright annexation. 

Disagreements within the Allied camp strongly contributed to the collapse of the First Coalition, a process begun as early as 1795, when Spain and Prussia, demoralised by failure to make progress against the growing strength of the republic, unilaterally abandoned their allies, which now included Britain since February 1793. After Austria suffered a series of humiliating defeats in her former Belgian possessions, along the Rhine and, above all, across northern Italy between 1796 and 1797, she concluded the Treaty of Campo Formio, which marked the death knell of the First Coalition. A resurgent Austria, still supported by Britain and joined by Russia, Turkey and others, formed the Second Coalition in 1798, with some initial success. The Allies recovered all of northern Italy from the French, Russian forces managed to penetrate as far west as Switzerland and even co-operated with the British in Holland in 1799, but they withdrew from the fighting, leaving Britain practically on her own in 1801, once Austria concluded a separate peace with France at Lunéville after suffering decisive twin defeats the previous year at Marengo and Hohenlinden. Thus, with an impasse created by French dominance on land and British supremacy at sea, the two hereditary enemies agreed to peace at Amiens in the spring of 1802. No one could deny that, in standing utterly triumphant on the continent – with the consequent radical shift in the balance of power – France reaped the lion’s share of the benefits accruing to those nations now wearied by a decade of conflict.

French claims that she required buffer states to protect her from her ideological rivals rang hollow during the interlude of peace inaugurated at Amiens. If Britain could grudgingly accept by 1803 that the principles of the Revolution – admirable though most of them were – had been thrust upon France’s neighbours at the point of the bayonet and remained an incontestable fact of life in western Europe, she could not long tolerate the strategic imbalance which French occupation represented or the control of the belt of satellite states created to enhance and extend French power beyond historically accepted bounds. The renewal of war thus remained inevitable even before the ink had dried at Amiens. Accordingly, hostilities resumed in May 1804, first in the form of a strictly Anglo-French conflict, but by the summer of 1805 to expand into a full-fledged coalition – the Third. By this time the Allies had ceased to insist upon the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and concentrated simply on deposing Napoleon and restraining the over-arching power of an expansive, now imperial, France. That nation no longer represented an ideological threat – the fact that Napoleon had reigned in constitutionalism and established himself as virtual dictator confirmed the fact. Yet, again, the Allies’ endeavour to re-establish a degree of strategic equilibrium on the continent failed – and in shorter order than ever before – thanks to the capitulation of an entire Austrian army at Ulm in October 1805, followed swiftly by Napoleon’s decisive victory at Austerlitz, near Vienna in December, which led to the coalition’s collapse. Napoleon, flushed with victory, renewed his self-seeking bid for further territorial gain, a process rendered all the more permanent when he placed various members of his family on the thrones of some of his dependencies.

By establishing the Confederation of the Rhine in July 1806, Napoleon could levy financial contributions as well as troops from a host of German states – some large like Bavaria and Saxony, some small like Hesse-Darmstadt and Mecklenburg. In his efforts to extend French influence well beyond central Europe, the emperor directly or indirectly controlled the whole of the Italian peninsula and the Dalmatian coast, such that when, upon crushing the resurgent Russians at Friedland in June 1807, Napoleon concluded accords with Russia and Prussia at Tilsit, he possessed a free hand with which to create a Polish satellite state known as the Duchy of Warsaw, thus providing him control over the whole of the continent from the Atlantic in the west to Denmark and the Prussian coast in the north, to the toe of Italy and the Adriatic coast in the south and to the Russian frontier in the east. In three short years the Napoleonic armies had cowed the three great continental powers of Austria, Russia and Prussia – a military feat not repeated again until Germany’s stunning successes in the early years of the Second World War. Britain, though supreme at sea, particularly after Trafalgar in October 1805, could accomplish little on land apart from seizing French colonies in the West Indies and dispatching largely ineffectual expeditionary forces to the continent. To be fair, she could, and did, fund her allies generously with millions of pounds in subsidies; but in the wake of such catastrophes as Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, financial aid proved woefully insufficient in reversing the hegemony imposed by France in the remarkable string of victories which marked out the Napoleonic heydays of 1805-07.

Three more coalitions followed, with the Sixth (1813-14) finally successful in April 1814 in subduing France, forcing Napoleon’s abdication and exile to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba and restoring the Bourbon dynasty in the person of Louis XVIII, with whom came a new charter designed not as a reactionary doctrine to return an exhausted and war-weary France to the status quo ante bellum – which even the monarchists understood to be both unrealistic and unworkable – but to provide for a parliamentary government which, at least in principle and appearance, would rival any found elsewhere in Europe. The king’s rule was to be established on a limited basis, including consultation with ministers and assistance provided by a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature composed of a House of Peers nominated by Louis, as well as an assembly composed of electors eligible by virtue of their annual tax contribution.

Very sensibly, the king agreed that the very sizeable tracts of land once the property of the Crown and Church which the Revolutionaries had sold off in the course of the 1790s ought to remain in the hands of their new owners, many of whom by 1814 could therefore trace their new acquisitions back more than two decades. The new constitution guaranteed civil liberties, while many of the institutions and much of the bureaucracy of the imperial years the royalist government retained with little amendment. The Restoration amounted, in effect, to a compromise, with the upper middle class accepting, albeit with some disgruntled protest, a new order which limited the power of the franchise while according to them, via a conservative legislature, the responsibility for enacting laws and levying taxes. If the broad public no longer enjoyed the influence upon politics which had constituted their new right from the earliest days of the Revolution, that memory now appeared a distant one in any event, for Napoleon’s seizure of power as First Consul in 1799 had largely put paid to the notion that the Revolution must remain in a state of perpetual change.

Yet in less than a year this system began to break down, so creating the widespread atmosphere of discontent from which Napoleon could profit by plotting his return to power. The government of Louis XVIII revealed itself much less sympathetic to liberal constitutionalism than the rhetoric of its first days in power implied, and in so doing alienated not merely individuals on a broad scale, but whole sectors of society wielding varying degrees of power, and whose voices and sentiments the new regime could only ignore at its peril. In practice, the Bourbons accepted no genuine admission of responsibility for rule based on cabinet government. Ministers advised and reported to the king on an individual basis and could – and regularly did – ignore the legislature, particularly the Chambers. Many former courtiers, returned from exile or at the very least from obscurity within France, gathered in the Tuileries in a manner alarmingly reminiscent of the days prior to the fall of the Bastille.

In the army, much of the Napoleonic officer corps was retired on half-pay and replaced with sycophants and many of the breed of aristocrats whom the republicans had long ago and with entire justification removed from their posts on grounds ranging from simple incompetence to disloyalty to the new political realities of republicanism. To compound these problems, an increasing number of hopefuls – some perhaps deserving, most certainly not – lobbied for a restoration of their former privileged status, including émigré officers, priests and nobles. The ultra-royalists, in particular, sought a wholesale reversal of political affairs and made no attempt to conceal their contempt for a charter which they connived to replace with a restored, absolutist order. Personally, in his nonchalant attitude to the affairs of state and general neglect of business, Louis exhibited every sign of sympathy with the ultras, who therefore looked optimistically upon the prospect of achieving their objectives of reversing many features of political and social progress whose retention practically everyone else - that is, widely different spectra of French society - could agree upon.

Moreover, just as the royalists revelled in restoring the old order, so many former officers and civil servants, jettisoned from their positions upon the fall of the Empire in April 1814, longed for the return of Napoleonic rule. Many wished to re-establish the nation’s military prowess and thus extinguish the humiliation of defeat; others opposed the new regime on the ideological grounds that, notwithstanding the restrictions imposed on civil rights by the Napoleonic state, many of the gains achieved during the Revolution had remained largely or wholly untouched down to the fall of the Empire; indeed, the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in 1802 had built upon these sweeping, often egalitarian reforms. This is not to claim that the nation as a whole enthusiastically longed for the emperor’s return; the only truly reliable base of support was to be found amongst much, though by no means all, of the peasantry and former soldiers. No one longed for a return to the blood-letting that had left hundreds of thousands of French soldiers dead since 1792; but nor did they wish to return to pre-revolutionary conditions for whose destruction the nation had paid so high a price over the course of a generation.

The Allied governments, whose diplomatic representatives had sat at Vienna since the peace in order to re-establish some semblance of territorial logic out of the continent’s radically re-drawn borders, immediately declared their determination to oppose Napoleon personally – for this, the Seventh Coalition, was not to constitute a war waged against France as such, but a struggle against an illegitimate regime. Cries of righteous indignation from Napoleon in Paris that he intended to pursue a policy of peace towards his neighbours; that internal reform would mark his reign; and that he desired no territorial gains - and thus renounced all claims to foreign soil - fell on deaf ears, or rather on those for whom the emperor’s past record of conquest rendered his promises very hollow indeed. Perhaps Napoleon genuinely sought to live in harmony with his neighbours and that the dispatch of Allied armies towards the French frontier accounted for the emperor’s immediate decision to mobilise his resources; yet whatever the truth of the matter, the historical record comprehensively failed to assuage the anxieties of those who branded Napoleon an international pariah bent on re-imposing French hegemony over the whole of Europe. 

 By Gregory Fremont-Barnes

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books