hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 18 June 2015

How Waterloo Shaped Europe


Alphen, Netherlands. 18 June. The Duke of Wellington once said, “The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance”. Two hundred years ago today just down the road from here the Battle of Waterloo took place.  Seventy-three thousand French troops under Napoleon faced some 68,000 troops of the “Seventh Coalition” under the command of Arthur, Duke of Wellington. 

Coalition forces included 25,000 British troops, 17,000 Dutch, 11,000 Hanoverians, 6000 Brunswickians, 6000 members of the King’s German Legion and eventually (and famously) 50,000 Prussians under Blucher. By day’s end over 40,000 Frenchmen were killed or missing with some 10,000 of the Coalition suffering a similar fate.

Waterloo was not any old European battle. It was the battle that shaped modern Europe and began the long and very tortuous road to an institutionalised Europe.  A new age of politics and warfare dawned at Waterloo as the battle marked the true end of the aristocratic age as the modern industrial nation-state came of power age. 

And, although the Iron Duke would contest my thesis European democracy also marched at Waterloo. The Napoleonic Wars which Waterloo brought to a decisive end marked the first real struggle between vested power and radicalism and thus helped established the European world order that is only today coming to an end.  The battle also paved for way for the creation of modern Germany some fifty years later and the three wars of European supremacy (1870-71, 1914-18, 1939-1945) which followed and which culminated in today’s European Union. 

Critically, Waterloo created the political space for the second British Empire which emerged in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat the loss of the American colonies.  Indeed, without rival on the Continent and unchallenged on the world stage for another seventy to eighty years the British constructed the largest empire the world has ever seen in the wake of Waterloo..and one of shortest lived.

Not without irony, for Waterloo was a victory of conservatism over radicalism, the Congress of Vienna which followed established the principle of an institutionalised European order, even though the Congress was dominated by the arch-conservatives Metternich of Austria and Castlereagh of Britain.  And, although Britain claimed to then retreat into “splendid isolation” Waterloo confirmed the principle of British engagement on the Continent. Moreover, the battle reinforced the fundamental principle that Britain would not permit a single power or group of powers to dominate Europe.  It is a principle that the Cameron government is in the process of abandoning or simply fails to understand.

Waterloo also exacerbated conflicts, not least the inherent conflict that existed between France and the Netherlands and between French and Dutch speakers.  At the Congress of Vienna almost the entire region of what eventually became Belgium was granted to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  Subsequently, a new struggle for independence began that only culminated with the recognition of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830 by the Dutch.  Belgium’s recognition was reinforced by the 1839 Treaty of London and the Belgian Neutrality Act by which Britain agreed to guarantee Belgium.  It was this Act, or rather the Kaiser’s 1914 breach of it that led to the formal declaration of war by Britain against Imperial Germany.

Some years ago I stood atop the enormous man-made hill which is crowned by the great Lion of Brabant which looks out over the great battlefield.  Alongside me were some twenty of so American students.  Those of you who know the site will recall that the modern Brussels ring-road runs close by.  Indeed, it was Napoleon’s belief that if he took Brussels he could force the Alliance to treat with him on favourable terms. Nice kids but a little naïve I explained to them that Napoleon faced two major problems on the day.  First, he could not get Wellington to weaken his centre and thus turn him. The Duke simply remained nailed to a ridge.  Second, I explained, Napoleon had terrible difficulties getting his army across the narrow footbridge which now crosses the highway. It took some minutes before the American penny dropped on a very European joke.

Waterloo was one of those tipping points in European history.  Indeed, far from being a British ‘victory’, which is how the British at least normally portray ‘Waterloo’, it was a very European event. In certain very important respects the struggle between Bonapartism and British-led conservatism spawned the birth of modern Europe.  Ironically, the ghosts of that struggle are present today in both the idea of ‘Europe’ which Napoleon certainly espoused and British concerns at the over-concentration of European elite power in a few elite hands.

Nor was the result of the battle a forgone conclusion.  As Wellington himself remarked the battle was, “the nearest run thing you did ever see in your life”.  As for Napoleon he escaped the battlefield following his defeat and tried to escape to North America.  Ironically, in a sign of the century to come, Napoleon was eventually captured by Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon.  Far from surrendering to Wellington’s Army the Emperor surrendered to what was still very much Nelson’s Royal Navy.


Julian Lindley-French 

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