Monday, 20 April 2015

Why the fuss about Waterloo?

I'm just back from a two day conference on Waterloo. It was held at the Royal Miltary Academy Sandhurst, home of the British Army officer corps, and itself a product of the Napoleonic Wars. This was not officially a military conference (although most of those attending were retired Army officers), but the final presentation was by a serving Major-General, who was looking at the lessons of Waterloo for the Army of today. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Waterloo still looms large in the minds of the British military.

Old College, Sandhurst. A nice place for a conference.
There were civilian speakers at the conference too: men (they were all men) who had devoted years to the academic study of the defence of La Haye Sainte or the role of the Prussians at the climax of the battle.

What is it about Waterloo that resonates so strongly with the British? (It is just the British. At the weekend I spoke to a French officer who said that the French army prefers to concentrate on Austerlitz.)

Of course Waterloo was a huge battle and a significant victory. But there have been other victories, before and since, that have been more significant. Stamford Bridge, Agincourt, D-Day, Goose Green - all of these battles decided campaigns and shaped the history of the UK. (You can mock at the inclusion of Goose Green but, for better or worse, do you think that there would have been Thatcherism without it?) Even within the Napoleonic Wars, it is almost certain that Wellington's Peninsular War victories were more significant to European history than the sad coda to more than two decades of Total War when a dilapidated army finally forced a once-great man to face the reality of his defeat the previous year.

Conference participants take coffee beneath a painting of the Battle of Waterloo
Waterloo, though, 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.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating article and insights. Thanks for sharing this - appreciated. I agree that those 7 hours did in fact shape our nation and the world's perception of our nation. Hope you enjoyed the RMA. It is a fab place. :)