Waterloo, the climactic battle of the Napoleonic Wars, saw Napoleon Bonaparte suffering a loss from which the French emperor would never recover. The fallen conqueror would spend the rest of his life in exile, sequestered on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena.
Fought on 18 June 1815 in Belgium, the battle saw an Allied force of 68,000 under Britain’s Duke of Wellington, together with Blücher’s 45,000 Prussians, locked in a desperate battle with the 72,000-strong French army under Napoleon.
The emperor had recently been restored to power, after a brief exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, and on his return to France had cobbled together a powerful army. The fate of Europe hung in the balance that day, but at its end, Napoleon had been soundly defeated.
‘Waterloo’ – and especially variations of the phrase ‘to meet one’s Waterloo’ – have come to signify a firm, conclusive end to a person or a thing. In 1816, the year after the great battle, Lord Byron highlighted the difficulty of learning the Armenian language, which had defeated many a student, when he wrote that it was ‘a Waterloo of an Alphabet.’
The phrase later made its way across the Atlantic, with American abolitionist Wendell Phillips declaring in his 1859 speech ‘The Lesson of the Hour’ that ‘every man meets his Waterloo at last.’
In fiction, it appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1905 story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with the incomparable detective saying, ‘We have not yet met our Waterloo, Watson, but this is our Marengo, for it begins in defeat and ends in victory.’
More recently, American country singer Stonewall Jackson asked, ‘Where will you meet your Waterloo?’ in his 1959 number-one hit ‘Waterloo’.
This article was published in the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.