hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 13 March 2015

France Throws a Waterloo Wobbly

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 March. On 18 June, 1815 Arthur, Duke of Wellington, with minor support from assorted Johnny Euros, gave some diminutive Frenchman with ideas decidedly above his station in life, and whose name escapes me, a dashed sound thrashing at the Battle of Waterloo, just off the autoweg/autoroute south of Brussels.  Belgium, which in 1839 was formed partly as a consequence of the massive, total and complete British victory over assorted French wallahs on the field of Waterloo, had wanted to prepare a commemorative two euro coin to mark the occasion of Britain’s complete and utter confounding of the French.  Sadly, the heirs of the Frenchman, whose name I forget, have reacted to the idea very badly and, sad to say, not untypically. 

Clearly, some senior bod in Paris, who apparently suffers from a self-righteous hot baguette up his backside, and not for the first time, has objected to the idea of the coin and the Belgians, not for the first time, have surrendered…rapidly.  In a letter the French Government, commenting on Belgium’s submission of a coin design to the Council of the European Union, said that the proposed coin, “could cause hostile reactions in France”. And?

The aforesaid baguette-afflicted senior French official went onto suggest that the coin would carry, “a symbol that is negative for a fraction of the European population”. That must mean the French ‘fraction’…that lost.  The rest of us are having a scream.  Moreover, M. Baguette said, “…the coin would risk engendering hostile reactions in France”.  What 200 years on?  However, the clincher, and I really wonder if M. Baguette was at this point suppressing Gallic humour, “The Battle of Waterloo is an event of particular resonance in the collective conscience, going beyond a simple military conflict”.  You bet it is, and indeed, was.  Britain, and not for the last time, and with the support of European allies, defeated the dictatorial imposition of someone else’s idea of how Europe should be organised and who should organise it. I wonder what Napoleon Juncker thinks about all this?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a profound respect for France and the French. My years working in France not only convinced me of the generosity of spirit of the French people. but France’s capacity to think big, which I deeply admire.  However, the French Establishment can on occasions turn self-righteous pomposity into a theatre d’absurde and this is one such occasion. 

The Battle of Waterloo was one of those ‘Europe’ forming moments in history.  It led to the 1815 Congress of Vienna which one could argue was the first true attempt to envision the idea of ‘Europe’ as a voluntary association of states.  The Great Congress rejected the idea that European order could be imposed by any one state, something which not only led to Napoleon’s demise, but in time that of the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalin. 

Therefore, Belgium is right to seek to commemorate this great European moment, and wrong to cave into French pressure. Waterloo was a great moment in the development of contemporary Europe and France should stop allowing its absurdly romantic view of Napoleon to block the minting of the coin.  Unfortunately, so absurdly romantic has the French view of Waterloo become that on the anniversary of the battle one French re-enactor wants to re-stage the battle and pretend that Napoleon won.  He did not - Napoleon lost, Wellington won. Period!

Sensibly the British have stayed out of this spat.  The last time Britain and France went head-to-head over Waterloo was when some wag in London decided the new Eurostar trains should end their journey from Paris at London’s Waterloo Station.  Upon the announcement a French deputĂ© rose in the AssemblĂ©e Nationale to threaten the renaming of the co-terminus Gare du Nord after a French victory over the British.  In what was his finest parliamentary moment then Prime Minister John Major rose in the House of Commons to announce that helpfully he had instructed ‘his people’ to find a French victory over the British. Sadly, they failed and the most they could come up with was the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy, “which was an honourable draw”.

The coup de grace during the Battle of Waterloo was the moment when Wellington shouted, “Now Maitland! Now’s your time!”  Maitland’s Brigade of Foot Guards, having outflanked the French Imperial Guard, rose as one to fire volley after volley into the Guard.  The Imperial Guard broke, Boney lost the battle and the war, and the rest is history.  He was then shuffled off to see out his days on the windswept island of St Helena at His Majesty’s Pleasure.

Thankfully, France need not despair.  London has decided to produce a new five pound note to commemorate Waterloo.  As Wellington said to Picton as the Imperial Guard advanced, “Picton, they’re coming on in the same old style”.  To which Picton replied, “Ay, Wellington. And we will have to meet them in the same old style”.

Get a life, France!

Julian Lindley-French 

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