Two hundred years ago today, the armies of Britain, France and the Netherlands met in a field just south of the Belgian village of Waterloo. It's doubtful if what happened there really changed the history of Europe, but it certainly brought an end to Napoleon's career and probably changed the history of France. It also changed the way that the British saw themselves for the rest ofthe century and beyond.
In my novel, Burke at Waterloo, my hero, James Burke, is riding with the Belgian 8th Hussars, who were part of a Netherlands light cavalry brigade which, contrary to the stories of Dutch-Belgian cowardice, behaved with conspicuous gallantry on the field.
Putting my hero at the centre of the action at Waterloo made me very nervous. Waterloo is a tricky thing to write about. It is, for most British military history enthusiasts, the battle of the 19th century. Hundreds of books are written about it. The Internet is full of websites, including some very erudite ones, discussing various aspects of it. War-Gamers refight Waterloo all the time. Anything you say is likely to be read by quite a lot of people who know enough about what happened to pick up any mistakes.
This should make research easy. Unfortunately, although much has been written about the battle, it was not particularly well documented as it happened. Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, formally describing the battle, runs to just over 2,300 words. This created considerable controversy at the time for its failure to mention many of the acts of valour performed on the field. Wellington started writing it on the evening of the battle and he had, by any standards, had rather a hard day. Even if he had delayed and written a longer account after he had had time to consult with his generals, it would still have had errors and omissions.
Although Waterloo was fought on a very small field (barely three square miles) it was a large and complex battle. Napoleon had around 72,000 troops and Wellington commanded just under 68,000. (Even these figures are much disputed: I’ve used Elizabeth Longford’s.)
Wellington’s force included troops of the Netherlands Army (Dutch and Belgian) and 5,000 men of the Brunswick contingent. Although all accepted him as the supreme commander on the field, they had different command structures, different languages and different uniforms. On at least one occasion, confusion as to the uniforms led to British troops opening fire on their allies with significant loss of life. Confusion was not only possible, but practically guaranteed.
We talk nowadays about "the fog of War" but it is difficult to imagine the chaos of a 19th-century battlefield. There was no radio or other means of long-range communication. Wellington's orders were carried to his commanders by riders who would cross the field of battle to take them to the people who would carry them out. It was dangerous work and many of his staff officers did not survive – and thus the orders did not necessarily get through.
Wellington positioned himself on the ridge overlooking the battlefield because he had to rely for information about where his troops were on what he could personally observe. Unfortunately, once the firing started the smoke from the muskets and cannon fire obscured much of the battlefield, so generals often had no idea where their forces were. The reason that military flags (the colours that are trooped at Trooping the Colour) are so significant is because that gave everybody at least a chance of seeing them through the smoke.
With the chaos and confusion that threatened the field, it is hardly surprising that both Wellington and Napoleon made really serious mistakes. Napoleon, in particular, was not the brilliant strategist that he had been before Elba. Much is made nowadays of the fact that he suffered from piles, no joke for a man who spent much of the day in the saddle. He was also probably suffering from other diseases picked up in a lifetime of campaigning across Europe and in the Middle East. Some of his most valued military commanders were no longer at his side. He had been particularly distressed by the loss of Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who had refused to join him on his return from Elba and who had fallen from a window in mysterious circumstances at the beginning of June. Tired, sick and no longer confident of the support of his people or some of his oldest friends, Napoleon delayed his attack and then threw men away in what had been intended as a diversionary attack on Huguemont. He failed to reinforce his centre with infantry when it could have made a difference and then, too late, threw away the Old Guard when the battle was all but lost.
Wellington's strategy was, essentially, to hold his position and pray that the Prussians would arrive before he was over-run. It was a sound (and ultimately successful) approach, but it was hardly the stuff of strategic genius. Basically, the British held their ground and took their punishment for over six hours. Inevitably, thousands died.
At the end of the day, pursued by Prussian cavalry, French losses were even greater. Famously, the Old Guard, surrounded by the enemy, refused to surrender and were slaughtered to a man. No one knows how many died altogether, but it must have been close to fifty thousand.
The loss of life is even more appalling when you consider what this battle achieved. It is often described as having shaped the history of Europe. This is nonsense. The whole continent was united against Napoleon and the armies of Austria and Russia were ready to move on Paris. Napoleon faced opposition even within France – many of his troops had to be left behind to protect against monarchist opponents at home. Victory at Waterloo might have bought Napoleon time, which he could have used to consolidate his domestic position and negotiate improved surrender terms with the Allies. It might well have changed the history of France: it can hardly be claimed that it would have changed the history of Europe.
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 was also seen as confirming Britain's pre-eminent military position in Europe. Although the battle had been an Allied effort – less than half of Wellington’s troops were British and he admitted that it could not have been won without the Prussians – it was presented as a British victory. Wellington (although Irish – a fact that he did not care to advertise) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces. Britain was the only country to have fought against Napoleon consistently throughout his rule and now a British commander had put an end to Boney once and for all. Waterloo has therefore attained a mythic status in British history and inconvenient details that do not fit with this narrative are forgotten or ignored.
Unfortunately, my hero is fighting in a Belgian cavalry regiment. As everyone knows it was a British victory, the role of regiments like the Belgian 8th Hussars has been quietly forgotten. Many historians claim that the Dutch and Belgian troops made little, if any, contribution to Wellington's success. In fact, the First Netherlands Light Cavalry Brigade, of which the 8th Hussars were a part, covered the retreat of the Scots Greys, saving the remnant of that regiment after their famous charge. The brigade was described as fighting with "insane gallantry".
In the end, I am sure that much of what I write about Waterloo could be debatable. Burke's experiences, though, do reflect one view of the reality of Waterloo – and a view more firmly rooted in the reality of the battle than many others. At least Burke recognised the courage of the Dutch-Belgians who were so often dismissed as 'Waterloo cowards'. Two hundred years after the battle, perhaps it is time to put the record straight.
Images are from Wikipedia. This is an edited version of an article I first wrote for Carol McGrath's blog, 'Scribbling in the Margins'.
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