This isn’t exactly a new story, but, hey, time works in mysterious ways on the blogosphere. I have just caught up with this Daily Mail article a month old suggesting the this country will downplay the 200th anniversary of Waterloo on 18th June 2015. I picked up on it from the monthly Civitas update – they provided one of the rent-a-quotes. This article appears to be a classic piece of Mail journalism, trying create a shock story from thin air. But it does raise the very interesting question of the status of this battle in British history.
Waterloo is very important in British history. But why? The obvious answer is that it was the battle that finally did for Napoleon. This is true, but it is undermined by two further observations. Napoleon’s strategic position was hopeless, and if he had won at Waterloo it is certain that he would have been crushed later on in the year, most likely by an Austrian-led army. The second point was that it wasn’t a particularly British battle. Wellington’s army was mostly Dutch, Belgian and various shades of German, and he was combining with Blucher’s Prussian army, whose intervention was decisive.
In fact from the point of view of showcasing Wellington’s undoubted military skills, this battle wasn’t the man’s finest hour. He was caught napping by Napoleon, needed the Prussians to slow him down at the Battle of Ligny, and had to accept huge casualties to the British contingent at Waterloo and its prequel, Quatre Bras. His gamble at Waterloo nearly didn’t pay off as the Prussians were much slower than he expected to arrive. British generals were supposed to keep British casualties down. In 1811 an equally desperate, but much smaller, battle in Spain, Albuera, led to a remarkable British/allied victory thanks to some absolutely herioc fighting by British units (and some Spanish ones). But British casualties were so high that this is often regarded at a bit of a defeat – and that was certainly the reaction of the British commander, Marshal Beresford. It would not have been so bloody if Wellington had been there, the soldiers muttered.
But, of course, if you pay such a high price in blood you have to build the battle up to be of huge importance to justify it to folks back at home; and that is what British politicians did, with the army and a string of British historians acting as willing accomplices. On top of that, it was a particularly dramatic battle, that has held a fascination for more than just the British. One of the best modern histories is written by an Italian and translated into several languages.
So is it all overdone? There is in fact something very important about this battle, that symbolises something of importance today. It is an example of Britain acting as a fully paid-up European power, paying blood to make the whole continent a safer place alongside European allies. A precursor to the great struggles of the 20th century: acting against the wrong sort of European unity. In this it contrasts with Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, which was a victory of Britain against Europe, resulting in British domination of the sea that was to last for over a century.
Waterloo was a European victory in which Britain a very full part. A good reason to celebrate in these Eurosceptic times.