The Battle of Waterloo is intrinsically linked to the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon, the towering military figures of the early 19th century.
These two men tried to control the battle’s memory and history, and each of them and their followers waged a vicious war on those who opposed their version of events. Others fought to protect certain legends of Waterloo because they had built perceived notions of their national identity upon them.
Thus Timothy Fitzpatrick sums up his concise but authoritative narrative of the last action of the Napoleonic Wars. This campaign, which cost more than 50,000 in killed and wounded on both sides, saw the power of Napoleon destroyed. This was a battle that ‘changed the world’, according to the author, who maintains that few military actions in history can be described as so decisive and complete in their geopolitical consequences.
Waterloo marked the end of conflict between Britain and France and ushered in a century of peace, a state of affairs unknown to Europe for many generations. For Britain, the battle was the culmination of nearly a hundred years of warfare against France. It became a symbol of British hegemony and was immortalised in the literature of the time, both English and French, most notably in the works of Stendhal, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
In February 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, where he had spent nearly a year in exile after the disastrous collapse of his empire. He entered Paris and soon found himself confronted by a European military coalition determined to oust him once and for all.
His only hope lay in pre-empting a combined enemy attack by going onto the offensive, although at that moment he could only raise about 125,000 troops. The French Emperor’s plan was to destroy the British and Prussian forces under the Duke of Wellington and Gerhard Blücher, before dealing with the Austrians and Russians gathering on the eastern frontier.
A MILITARY CASE-STUDY
For Fitzpatrick, the Waterloo campaign served as a case-study of operations and of the conduct of war. The author contends that the theory of armed conflict was profoundly influenced by the campaign in Belgium and the culminating Battle of Waterloo.
He argues that the French made a series of fatal mistakes during the campaign and on the day of the main battle. Napoleon pinned the blame for some of these on Marshal Ney – like the delay in taking the Quatre Bras crossroads – whereas Ney’s former comrade-in-arms, later a renowned military theorist, General Antoine-Henry Jomini, defended Ney’s reputation and shift ed a critical gaze onto the Emperor himself.
Jomini maintained that Napoleon had the opportunity to defeat the Prussians completely at Ligny, in what was the last victory of his military career. The problem was that the British by that time had occupied Quatre Bras. Napoleon’s attack on the Prussians at Ligny did not go according to plan, a simultaneous French attack on Quatre Bras was repelled, and darkness had fallen on the battlefield of Ligny before the result was clear; in the circumstances, Napoleon failed to order a cavalry pursuit to complete the destruction of Blücher’s army.
‘The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo cast a long shadow over the 19th century,’ says the author. ‘As the men who fought in the war started to die, the next generation began to look for the meaning of the post-Waterloo world.’
Fitzpatrick focuses on the writing of Victor Hugo, the principal French literary chronicler of Waterloo, and his semi-autobiographical historical fiction novel Les Misérables, the main characters of which were drawn from the novelist’s own life.
For Hugo, Waterloo was part of a healing process to bring France back into the family of nations. It was the necessary price eventually to restore what Hugo had hoped for: a republic. It can therefore be argued that Waterloo was a beginning, not an end, for France. The country could once again attain greatness, but it had to discard the excesses of the revolution, the Bourbon dynasty, and dreams of European empire.
Fitzpatrick shows how Waterloo became a major attraction not just for old soldiers and writers, but also for curiosity-seekers from across Europe. William I of the United Netherlands went so far as to erect a monument visitors could climb so as to enjoy a panoramic view of the entire battlefield, thus converting it into a key symbol of European history.
Sir Walter Scott was among those who toured Waterloo only two months after the battle, later meeting the Duke of Wellington in Paris. Such was the battle’s literary impact that Scott’s writings also influenced Jane Austen, who made Waterloo the backdrop for her novel Persuasion.
Fitzpatrick accurately concludes that the history of Waterloo will never escape the myths and legends around the two central personalities.
Review by Jules Stewart
This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.