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22 August 2015


Tag(s): People, History
This year marks several notable anniversaries in British history, Magna Carta, Agincourt, Gallipoli but one of particular significance is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo which we marked on 18th June. Waterloo not only ended the remarkable career of Napoleon Bonaparte whose vainglory led directly to the death of around 6m people, many of whom were his own fellow countrymen. It also ended what had become the second Hundred Years War between Great Britain and France which began during the reign of Louis XIV and was not only a military contest but also a colonial and commercial rivalry for leadership of much of the world. Britain resisted everything France could throw at her and so helped to create the conditions for the system of security known as the Concert of Europe, established in 1815. The peace dividend Britain enjoyed for the next four decades enabled it to become the dominant global power of the 19th century.

The battle itself was one of the bloodiest ever fought. The victorious British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said after the battle “Thank God, I don’t know what it is like to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many friends.” Most of his staff were killed or wounded.  Some 200,000 men had fought each other squeezed into a battlefield covering just five square miles. Perhaps 50,000 were killed or seriously wounded although the French losses were only estimates and may have been more.  It is true that Wellington never lost a battle; he fought and won 60 battles often against superior opposition.

Napoleon was also a brilliant general who uniquely in European history won an empire that stretched from Portugal to Moscow.  But he lost several of his battles. He was careless and callous about his men. Defeated in Egypt he fled leaving his army to rot. In 1812 he led a disastrous campaign against Russia taking 422,000 men and returning with just 10,000. I have hanging on the wall of my study where I am writing this a copy of the classic graphic by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard which plots six variables to show the terrible fate of Napoleon’s army in Russia. As the army moves across the map its size is shown to reduce as winter set in. It’s arguably the greatest graphic of its kind ever developed. But the story it tells is one of unbridled ambition, hubris and an appallingly cavalier attitude to his men. Even as they died they raped, pillaged and looted their way across Europe.

The whole of Europe turned on Napoleon and he was beaten at the decisive Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and then shamed and forced to abdicate in 1814. He was exiled to the Island of Elba where he fumed for nine months and then escaped vowing that it was better to die in battle rather than in some forgotten island. But he was never likely to die in battle; it was his men that would die for him. He rounded up some 200,000 men and regained the support of his former Marshals: Davout, Suchet, Grouchy and Ney. His plan was to take on the coalition that was once again forming against him, but to divide them and defeat them one by one.

However, he divided his own forces. He left Marshal Davout, one of his most effective generals, behind to guard Paris while another of his best men, Suchet was sent to defend the Eastern border against a possible attack by Austria. Then he sent Ney up against Wellington but Ney hesitated in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, which was the  key to dividing the coalition forces, and so that battle was won by the Anglo-Dutch on 16th June. On the same day a much bigger battle was being fought at Ligny against the Prussians which the French won but not as decisively as they might if the Compte d’Erlon had not meandered about with his 20,000 troops between the two battle sites. If he had joined in either such intervention could have had considerable impact. Grouchy also contributed to this sequence of errors by failing to prevent Blücher’s Prussians from regrouping and reaching Waterloo in time to have a decisive hand.

Wellington and Blücher made a much better combination. They were both highly experienced and talented commanders with excellent staff. The British and Prussian infantry were hardened veterans; many of the British had fought all the way with Wellington across the Iberian Peninsula to rout Napoleon’s armies out of Spain. Of particular importance was the trust that Wellington and Blücher had for each other, a fact almost certainly underestimated by Napoleon.

Napoleon surrendered to the British. If the Prussians had caught him they would have executed him, which most of Europe wanted. The more gentlemanly officers of the Royal Navy ignored Napoleon’s request to live out his life as a country gentleman in England and instead locked him up on the remote island of St Helena, which Napoleon greatly resented as did many of his remaining followers. He died in 1921, aged 51, but in 1840 his remains were transported to Paris where vast crowds cheered him and of course he is buried in a hugely opulent tomb at Les Invalides.

This year when the Belgians wanted to mark the anniversary with a special euro coin the French were apoplectic. I guess the English have always found the French difficult to understand and vice versa but this really takes the biscuit. Napoleon committed monstrous acts that should in modern terms be regarded as crimes. He reintroduced slavery which had been abolished in the revolution. He desecrated the grave of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He looted great works of art which were all shipped to the Louvre. As his armies rampaged over Europe it was the local people everywhere who paid the price in the loss of crops and livestock and often their own lives or the maidenhood of their daughters.He set up concentration camps and used gas to kill thousands of people.

Every country has shame in its past. There is a statue of King Richard I whom we call Lionheart in Parliament Square but he spent most of his reign abroad and committed great crimes against thousands of Moslems. Many of our great estates in the eighteen century were founded on slavery in the Caribbean islands. The United States was founded on the genocide of the native inhabitants. I don’t really need to discuss the crimes of Germany and Italy in the much more recent past. But these countries have come to terms with their past and do not hide them

Napoleon may have been an effective administrator and a clever general but he was a mass murderer on an epic scale not equalled in history until the horrors of the Twentieth Century under Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.

A year or so ago the prospective Master of the Marketors asked a small group to help him plan his events for this year. I suggested a walk to commemorate the anniversary of Waterloo. I had in mind a walk round the station finishing at the famous Wellington pub nearby which has an imposing mural of the Battle of Waterloo as its centrepiece. Not very original. We did much better by starting our walk by the splendid equestrian statue to Wellington in front of the Royal Exchange. The statue was unveiled in the presence of the Duke on 18th June 1844 thus commemorating the date of the battle. But it was not commissioned for that purpose. Rather the City of London wanted it in thanks for the Duke’s role in assisting the passage of the London Approaches Act 1827 which led to the creation of King William St opening up London Bridge to the City.

We then admired his monument in the Guildhall where he keeps company with William Pitt, Horatio Nelson and Winston Churchill. We finished our walk appropriately at St Paul’s Cathedral where he is buried in a great sarcophagus. His funeral in 1852 was attended by 13,000 people packed into specially erected tiers and was held unusually under the dome rather than in the quire. The procession from Aspley House to St Paul’s was one of the greatest public ceremonies in nineteenth century Britain. Uniquely the Lord Mayor’s Show was cancelled that year to accommodate it.

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. Bernard Cornwell. William Collins. 2015
Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny Tim Clayton Little, Brown. 2015.
The French should end their love affair with Napoleon. Dan Snow. Daily Telegraph 14th March 2015.

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