Waterloo: Beyond the Battlefield

Why we should take greater account of Waterloo’s aftermath.

During the late afternoon of June 18th, 1815, as Napoleon’s intense artillery bombardment tore into the Allied centre at the Battle of Waterloo and all around ‘men were going down like ninepins’, the Duke of Wellington observed: ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen, but we will see who can pound the longest.’ The Iron Duke, a model of calm in a crisis, was honest enough to know that defeat beckoned if his Prussian allies, under General Blücher, did not arrive before sunset. So ‘give me Blücher’, he prayed, ‘or give me night’. As the Prussian corps finally poured on to the eastern end of the battlefield, crucially reinforcing the Allies’ left flank, the action of that long summer’s day approached its climax. In the early evening Napoleon ordered up his Imperial Guard to inflict the coup-de-grâce on his battered opponents. But Wellington’s line held firm: the French broke and ran.

Controversy still surrounds the Battle of Waterloo and its aftermath. The resulting Allied victory over the French was indeed ‘a near run thing’. Losses on all sides were enormous, with up to 50,000 dead and many more wounded. Wellington was later to downplay the significance of the Prussian intervention. He even claimed that if he had been able to field his elite Peninsular Army, as opposed to the hastily convened Allied force, he would have attacked Napoleon first, sweeping ‘him off the face of the earth’. While Wellington’s valour was indisputable, the chaotic as much as the heroic characterised Waterloo: the uncommon level of hand-to-hand combat; the bad visibility caused by huge clouds of gunsmoke, which filled the air; the poor communication between officers owing to the mounted couriers falling off their horses as they galloped about the battlefield, often to their death; and the high rate of casualties from backfiring cannons.

Two centuries later Waterloo and its consequences remain significant and controversial. In an article published in the Guardian on July 13th, 2013, Richard J. Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge University, suggested that Waterloo had been used as part of a ‘patriotic British – or for the most part English – historical narrative, which envisions mainland Europe largely as the scene of British triumphs over evil foreigners.’ But there is much more to the story of Waterloo than a tale of ‘tub-thumping jingoism’. As we approach Waterloo’s bicentenary it is worth understanding the battle in the broadest possible context, looking beyond its martial deeds and complex dynamics, to its origins, outcomes and legacies. For all the gore and glory, if June 18th, 1815 was indeed one of those ‘punctuation marks in history’, to borrow Churchill’s metaphor, then we should reconsider the longer-term legacy of Waterloo as a rare defining moment and turning point of European history. 

From a British national perspective it is tempting to describe the end of the Napoleonic Wars as heralding an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, a halcyon century of stability, national self-assuredness and expanding Empire. But Britain, like most other states, faced severe challenges in the transition from war to peace after more than 20 years of conflict, during which time state expenditure had more than quadrupled. In 1816 the British foreign secretary and the leader of the government in the House of Commons, Lord Castlereagh, identified the two great sources of instability in Europe as the huge standing armies which had been bequeathed by 20 years of warfare and ‘the Debts which hang about all the States of Europe, as Millstones dragging them to the bottom’.

Above all the international system had to be restored and the boundaries of Europe reset. The allies who met at the Congress of Vienna during 1814 and 1815 were swift in recognising that France would have to be readmitted to the community of nations and that overly harsh reparations against her (such as those enforced on Germany in 1918), would be counter-productive. What followed from 1815 to 1822 was a pioneering experiment in congress diplomacy and multilateral summitry. It was far from perfect but the dilemmas facing European statesmen were huge. Was the freedom and independence of small states and nations a price worth paying for the stabilisation of Europe and the prevention of a major European war until the 1850s? Could the revolutionary ideas of the period really be put back in a box by the old monarchies of the Continent? Either way it is hard to imagine the United Nations or the European Union without the new approach to diplomatic disputes that followed Waterloo. The 1815 Congress of Vienna may not have been as noble and visionary as the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 but there is a good case to argue that it worked much better.

In September this year King’s College London and ‘Waterloo 200’ will host a conference on the battle with a cast of internationally renowned speakers, who will debate and discuss its outcomes, considering the political, economic and social consequences of the battle over the course of the 19th century. British, French, German and Russian perspectives will all be featured, as will the domestic and international effects of 1815 and its aftermath. After all, it was the battle that forged the long 19th century.

John Bew is Reader in History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. Mungo Melvin, a retired army officer, is President of the British Commission for Military History.