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Waterloo: The Great War


I have been studying Waterloo, the final battle of the Great War, in great detail for some forty years. This opening statement will cause some bewilderment to many who have grown up with the appellation of the Great War firmly applied to the 1914-18 First World War. But to anyone living before 1918, the title of the Great War was applied to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in which Britain fought France almost continuously for twenty-two years from 1793 to 1815.

The Battle of Waterloo, fought in Belgium on 18 June 1815, exactly two hundred years ago, was completely decisive, ending Napoleon’s hopes for ever. Nine hours of bitter fighting set the course of Europe and indeed the entire world for a century. However, it must be understood that the battle does not stand alone, it was the culmination of a rapid campaign in Belgium but the allies still had to march to Paris to end Napoleon's reign again.

Despite such cataclysmic results, few people now know much about this short campaign. I have met many who thought that the battle occurred in London, assuming that the train station stands on the battle site; or they have assumed it was fought in France because they remember that Napoleon was defeated there, possibly basing their knowledge on the famous Abba song of that name. Few will know the generals who opposed him, although arguably Britain’s greatest ever general fought here, and they will almost certainly know nothing of the men of other countries who fought and died there: the Prussians, the Dutch, Belgians, Brunswickers, Nassauers and Poles, and even a couple of Americans.

History as taught in our schools has for many decades hopped straight from the Stuarts to the Industrial and Agrarian Revolutions and then again to the First and Second World Wars. This shameful negation of the entire Georgian period is deliberate, this allows for the avoidance of any reference to the rise of the British Empire, which we are now expected to feel only shame for. But we ignore the lessons of any period of history at our peril and the empire, both good and bad, very much formed this country we now live in, without an understanding of that, we can understand nothing of our past.

The Battle of Waterloo was both a fascinating and a terrible thing. War is never glorious or pretty and certainly never comes without great pain and loss for all sides engaged. But sometimes war is unavoidable and necessary as the lesser of evils, and it can change the course of history. Such was Waterloo.

Because of its significance, everybody sought to own a memento from the battlefield or a commemorative piece commissioned in its aftermath. This has meant that a huge mass of this material is still to be seen in museums and private collections across the globe; indeed, many families still lovingly treasure items relating to their forebears who fought in this momentous campaign.

A brief understanding of the reasons why Waterloo occurred is perhaps necessary for those unacquainted with the history. The French Revolution had seen the guillotining of King Louis XVI of France in 1793 and the monarchies of Europe turning on France to avoid the revolutionary spirit spreading and threatening their own thrones. Fortunes see-sawed until one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, took his chance to make his name and captured northern Italy and then Egypt for France. Once he had the army on his side, he duly organised a military takeover, becoming First Consul and within a few years Emperor of France. He transformed the war against the European monarchies, defeating the three great continental military powers, Austria, Prussia and Russia, in succession. At its height the French Empire reached from Oporto to Warsaw. Britain remained his only constant foe; Britain ruled by sea, Napoleon by land. However, in 1812 he overstretched himself and his army of half a million men reached Moscow, but died almost to a man in the snows of a Russian winter. By 1814 France was overwhelmed and Paris fell; Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba.

However, Napoleon continued to plot from his mini kingdom, and when he judged the time right he sailed with only one thousand men and landed in France on 1 March 1815. As his small force marched on Paris, the Royalist armies sent against him, simply switched allegiance and Napoleon was swept into Paris on a tide of adulation.

The great powers of Europe were still in congress at Vienna deciding how to produce a balance of power in Europe after the break-up of the French Empire when Napoleon returned, and they unanimously declared war against him, not France. Realising that he stood no chance against the combined armies of Europe, Napoleon hastily formed his army and launched a surprise attack on Belgium, aiming to destroy the armies of Britain and the Netherlands (Holland and Belgium being one kingdom) under the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Field Marshal Blücher, before the Austrians, Russians and Spanish could enter the war. If he could destroy these armies and effectively knock those countries out of the war, he hoped the others might be brought to the peace table.

At Waterloo, over 180,000 men with over 40,000 horses fought on a battlefield no wider than three square miles, and by the end over 50,000 men and 20,000 horses were killed or severely maimed. Wellington, supported by the arrival of the Prussians, destroyed the French Army, and Napoleon’s dreams of a renewed French Empire were quashed forever. Napoleon was forced to abdicate once again and was exiled to the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died; Britain effectively turned its back on Europe and used its domination of the seas to further expand its empire, whilst Europe looked for a new way forward to try to avoid these seemingly interminable wars. The Age of Congress was born and at every crisis all the heads of Europe would meet to debate and attempt to find a peaceful solution. War was not avoided completely, but local wars were prevented from escalating into pan-European conflict for one hundred years, until the Germans refused to attend a congress in 1914.

By Gareth Glover

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