A few weeks ago we looked at the way that the dead were disposed of after Waterloo, which, I guess, is pretty much the last word on the actual fighting. But people still talk about Waterloo today. How important was it in the end?

It is often claimed that Waterloo had a decisive effect on the future shape of Europe with books with titles like Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny. There’s very little evidence, though, that it did. Had Napoleon won he might have been able to negotiate a peace that would have left him safe in Paris. It’s a moot point and many people consider that, with all the great powers of Europe against him, peace would have been impossible, but let’s say he had succeeded. Would that have changed the face of Europe?

It seems unlikely. France was finished as a great military power: the Waterloo campaign had clearly demonstrated that. Napoleon had simply lost too many men for the country to be able to supply huge armies again. Even if he had won at Waterloo and been able to take Brussels, the cost of doing so would have been to have rendered ineffective the last great army he had managed to scratch together. It is possible, though, that the capture of Brussels would have meant Napoleon was able to keep his throne. He certainly thought so. (For a discussion of why, see my blog post on why he invaded Belgium in the first place.)

Victory at Waterloo might have changed the history of France. If Napoleon had remained Emperor, Southern Belgium – Wallonia – would have been forever part of France and the north of the country probably part of the Netherlands. Instead Belgium vanished altogether into the Netherlands before obtaining an uneasy independence that has seen it permanently split into warring factions of Francophones and Flemands. It is difficult to see how Europe would have been fundamentally changed if Belgium had never existed in its modern form.

It was not Allied victory at Waterloo that initiated the end of a revolutionary era and brought peace to Europe. After decades of war, Europe was ready for peace and the Great Powers had united to end revolution. The peace treaties that were to define post-Napoleonic Europe had already been agreed in Vienna while Napoleon was still on Elba.

The military defeat of Napoleon was an inevitable consequence of social and political change at the beginning of the 19th century: the changes that followed 1815 were not caused by Napoleon’s defeat but were the product of the movements that had destroyed him.

But what was the effect on Britain?

The biggest impact on Waterloo was felt in Britain.

Waterloo has a special significance both to Britain as a nation, and the Army as an institution.

Although Britain in the 18th century was clearly one of the Great Powers, the idea (common amongst Empire enthusiasts) that the British Empire was pre-eminent in an era of colonial expansion is by no means clear. The Napoleonic Wars saw Britain emerge as a leading (in British eyes the leading) European power. Britain was the only country to resist Napoleon throughout the period of conflict. British diplomacy was central to the formation of the many coalitions against France and British money had financed the wars. Yet direct British military involvement had been mainly limited to the Peninsular Campaign. While this had been of crucial strategic importance, it was never the primary focus of the war and Britain was not among the Powers that fought their way into Paris in 1814. Napoleon’s escape from Elba enabled Britain to take centre stage with the final defeat of Napoleon at a cataclysmic battle fought under Wellington as the Allied Commander-in-Chief. Waterloo left the British convinced of their pre-eminence in Europe, a conviction so strong that it generated its own reality.

Britain never looked at itself in quite the same way again. Waterloo was a powerful symbol of national unity at a time of Corn Law riots and political unrest. The sight of Scots troops fighting so decisively alongside the English led to a new view of Scotland. The Scots had so recently been considered a threat to the Union that the Scots Greys were officially the North British, lest they get ideas about nationhood. Suddenly it was acceptable, even fashionable, to be a Scot. Wellington, now the greatest of British military men, went on to become Prime Minister. There were to be ups and downs in the decades ahead, but Waterloo had both strengthened the unity of the nation and allowed it to accept some of the differences within it.

What Waterloo did do was define the character of Britain for the next hundred years. Wellington’s famous calmness and “stiff upper lip” (typified by his insisting that the Duchess of Richmond go ahead with her ball, even as the French crossed the Belgian border) may have been nothing more than a propaganda ploy to reassure nervous civilians, yet it came to define how an English gentleman should behave. The steadfastness of the British troops, who held their positions all day under heavy fire, also came to typify the martial virtues of the British Army. It is significant that the British attribute heroism to stoicism under fire, such as that shown by British troops in the trenches during the First World War or Dunkirk in the Second, rather than enthusing about the kind of strategic genius that can lead to victory without heroic losses.

Waterloo also changed the image of the Army. During most of the Napoleonic Wars, and the wars that preceded them, it was the Navy that was, in every sense, the Senior Service. It was the wooden walls that had defended England and saved us from French tyranny. Now, suddenly, the Army took centre stage. The British had long distrusted the standing army, but after Waterloo every soldier was a hero. (It was the first conflict to be commemorated with a medal awarded to all the British participants.) The modern Army has been built on the heritage of Waterloo.

Twentieth century notions of the quintessence of Britishness – coolness under fire, holding firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, even, dare it be said, making a virtue of cobbling together a solution from the limited resources available instead of properly planning ahead – all these things started with images of the Iron Duke and his men at Waterloo and in the days preceding the battle.

Waterloo was – despite its strategic inconsequence – the decisive battle of its age. It defined Britain, it enabled the development of the modern Army and it marked the start of the British Empire. It is doubtful that, as many people claim, it had a significant impact on the future of Europe. However those seven hours in June two hundred years ago had an enormous effect on the future of Britain.


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