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A British military historian views the epic battle through the prisms of time and nationality.

It seems appropriate that the standard British image of Waterloo is of fortitude, the fortitude of soldiers in line and square resisting French attacks, the fortitude commemorated on canvas. Thus Dighton, who was appointed military draftsman to the prince The Battle of Waterloo (1816) by Denis regent in 1815, showed French cavalry attacking a resolute British square. Foreign painters, by contrast, understandably focused on other themes, notably the allied commanders, as in Jan Willem Pieneman’s The Battle of Waterloo (1824).

The fortitude of defense was the key British note, and not the triumphant advance at the close of the battle. This defense spoke to something in the national character or, at least, self-image, although such abstractions have to be employed with considerable care. To 19th-century Britons, Waterloo was thus of a pattern with Sir John Moore’s victorious checking of Marshal Nicholas Soult’s attack at Corunna in 1809. The pattern continued with the British defense against the Russians in the Crimean War in 1854, especially at Inkerman, the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel,” in the journalist W. H. Russell’s memorable phrase. And the defense of Rorke’s Drift against Zulu attack in 1879 was an episode that could be compared to the defense of Hougoumont in 1815.

Heroism in defense is scarcely solely a British theme, as the Spartans bravely fighting to the end against Persian attack at Thermopylae in 480 BC amply demonstrate. But this heroism in defense provided the master narrative for Waterloo and it linked the British to similar efforts of classical endeavor. Waterloo was thus a modern epic, with multiple resonances from the past actively sought by contemporaries interested in measuring themselves against classical heroes. Clearly, the French, the Prussians, and the allied contingents in the army of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, showed their bravery, but the British narrative was least complicated by politics because there was no equivalent to the ambivalence about Napoleon Bonaparte and, to a lesser extent, Prussia that existed in France and Germany, respectively.

The Prussians did not devote the same attention as the British did to Waterloo, a battle, after all, in which they only played a secondary role, and this was particularly true after the Wars of German Unification (1864–1871) had provided them with exemplary victories for which they could claim the entire credit. Indeed, for Napoleon III, defeat at Sedan in 1870 had the fatal impact that Waterloo had had for his uncle. (Unlike Napoleon I, however, Napoleon III was able to find exile in Britain, with which he had earlier allied against Russia.)

Despite the limited role of Waterloo commemoration in Prussia, Gebhard von Blücher, whose epic march and appearance on the field of battle sealed Napoleon’s fate, is honored with an impressive bronze statue in his hometown of Rostock, Mecklenburg, in the Universitätsplatz. A relief panel on its base depicts Waterloo. The field marshal is also commemorated by a statue on the Unter den Linden in Berlin, the walkway of Prussian greatness.

In Hanover, the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order was established to honor the officers of the King’s German Legion that fought at Waterloo, as well as exemplary civilian service to the kingdom of Hanover. A memorial, erected between 1826 and 1832 in the Waterlooplatz in the city of Hanover, pays tribute to the casualties. However, the resonance of Hanover’s role faded with the conquest and absorption of Hanover by Prussia in 1866. The duchy of Nassau, where a memorial obelisk to Waterloo was erected, was also conquered and absorbed by Prussia that same year.

Outside Germany, however, the role of the Prussians shrank into insignificance, particularly because the battle was simplified and personalized into an Anglo-French struggle between the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. Moreover, the German role at Waterloo was also subordinated in the first half of the 20th century, a period of Anglo-German confrontation and conflict. Britain’s enmity toward Napoleon was also stemmed by its alliance with France in both world wars.

The impression of Waterloo as an Anglo-French struggle between the two war leaders has proved most persistent and has lent itself to modern vernacular representations. The of the World, produced for the Millennium Dome Blackadder History in London in 2000, makes fun of the respective leaders, diminishing them to comic-book characters, with Wellington killed when a time machine lands on him. The most famous modern reference to the battle, the European group ABBA’s extremely popular song “Waterloo,” begins, inaccurately, “My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender,” and continues by describing a relationship in terms of conflict, with Waterloo the occasion of defeat.

However superficial, ABBA’s song shows that for history to resonate in modern popular culture, it has to take different forms. As an example of the contrary, admittedly a battle that was far less prominent or influential in its impact, the 2008 tricentennial of the total victory of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, over a French army at Oudenaarde, not far from Waterloo, went unobserved. This battle in the War of Spanish Succession played a prominent role in the historical writings of Winston Churchill and George Macaulay Trevelyan, the most distinguished British historian of mid-century. It would have been known by, or at least taught to, generations of British schoolboys, but now it is as one with the works of Ozymandias, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of that name, forgotten glory but for a statue half buried in sand.

Shelley was a bitter critic of the Liverpool ministry, notably in “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819), but the point in his poem about the passage of greatness was equally radical. The speed with which such events as Oudenaarde have been deemed irrelevant has been rapid. Yet Waterloo endured. Victorian painters commemorated it with zeal. Sir William Allan, president of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting and limner (illustrator) to Queen Victoria in Scotland, exhibited his painting Battle of Waterloo from the English Side in 1843, selling it to Wellington.

Allan’s alternate view, Waterloo from the French Side, exhibited in 1846, lost out to Daniel Maclise’s The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After Waterloo in the competition to decorate the new Houses of Parliament, as did Thomas Sydney Cooper’s painting of a cavalry action at Waterloo.

The role of cavalry at Waterloo had particular appeal for painters, as in the Gordons and Greys to the Front, An Incident at Waterloo (1898) and The Sunken Road of Ohain (1894) by the English painter Stanley Berkeley. Meanwhile, W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics for the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta Iolanthe (1882) had the chorus of members of the House of Lords declare, “Yet Britain set the world ablaze / In good King George’s glorious days!”

The battle remained iconic for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, partly because there was no disruption to national heritage and collective memory comparable to the defeats and revolutions that affected Russia, Germany, France, and Italy between 1917 and 1945. In 1066 and All That (1930), a highly successful comic account of the conventional approach to British history, Waterloo served the authors, Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman, with standard resonances and established quotes:

This utterly memorable battle was fought at the end of a dance, on the Playing Fields of Eton, and resulted in the English definitely becoming top nation. It was thus a very Good Thing. During the engagement the French came on in their usual creeping and crawling method and were defeated by Wellington’s memorable order, “Up Jenkins and Smashems.”

Trevelyan, in his History of England, which first appeared in 1926, with a third edition in 1945 and a new impression in 1960, presented Britain as the moral center:

The fortunate brevity of this last war was due to the prompt and courageous action of the British Government in declaring war at once, and sending over Wellington to defend Holland and Belgium in alliance with Blücher and his Prussians, till the allied armies from the East could arrive in overwhelming numbers. The decisive character of the great battle put a sudden end to the war, because France was half-hearted in her desire that it should be renewed.

Thus Britain’s victory was in accordance with European destiny. The endpapers of one of the major history books I had as a boy, The Living World of History (1963), featured Scotland Forever, a famous painting of the charge of the British cavalry by Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler. This book made no mention of the European Economic Community, which the government had sought to join, and, instead, presented the Victorian period as the great age of British achievement.

By the start of the new millennium, however, the battle of Waterloo had a precarious status. Membership in the European Union led to uneasiness about celebrating triumphs over France, but there were more profound cultural, political, social, and chronological changes that undercut the long inheritance of national history and the understanding of national identity bound up in it. The quintessential victorious land battle of imperial Britain appears faded, with the empire, while moving into the 21st century, has made the 19th seem very distant.

The multiplicity of ways later generations would present such historical battles are far removed from the real struggles of men under the heavy cloud of the battle day, but these interpretations also capture the extent to which the significance of these struggles has been emphasized or downplayed over time. This is true of most major battles, but it is particularly the case with Waterloo. As with such episodes as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the battle has served to encapsulate contrasting narratives and analyses of human behavior.

No author can escape this; whatever he might try to do, others will see him, at least in part, in terms of their presuppositions. A British writer praising the British effort in 1815 appears especially partisan. But the Anglo-Prussian victory was of importance and value not only for Britain but also more generally; and, however imperfectly, this importance was exemplified by the wide composition of the Seventh Coalition and of the allied forces on the battlefield, as well as those marching toward and into France from the Netherlands, a number of German states, Russia, Sweden, and Austria, as well as Prussia and the United Kingdom. A victory for Napoleon at Waterloo would simply have committed Europe to a lengthier war and France to eventual defeat and probably harsher peace terms. These terms would have left a degree of bitterness that would have fed pressure for revanche.

The rapid defeat and overthrow of Napoleon were therefore to the general good, as far as Europe was concerned. A lengthy war there also might have made European expansion elsewhere in the world over the subsequent three decades less likely. Britain might not have fought, or fought successfully, the Marathas in 1817–1818, the Burmese in 1824–1826, or the Chinese in 1839–1842; might not have invaded Afghanistan in that same period or Sind in 1843; nor occupied Aden in 1839; nor, in 1840, stopped the northward advance of Egypt against the Ottoman Empire, with France, Austria, and Russia.

The Netherlands would not have been able to advance in Java and Sumatra in the 1820s. Russia might not have risked war with Persia in 1825–1828 and the Ottoman Empire in 1828–1829, each of which led to territorial gains. France would not have been able to focus on the conquest of modern-day Algeria beginning in 1830, nor seize Gabon, starting in 1839. Spain would not even have been able to mount its unsuccessful efforts to retain its empire in Latin America.

These points now seem inconsequential at best. Indeed, in many respects Waterloo can now be seen not as the “end of history” for the 19th century with the defeat of Napoleon, but, instead, as an aspect of the reconceptualization or attempted reconceptualization of history. In particular, this reconceptualization entails the assault on nationalism in Europe and the concern with a new 21st-century history. These points can be seen not only in criticism of the British Empire but also in the changing treatment of Napoleon.

The response to the successful presidential bid by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 informs this discussion. His frequent references to Napoleon reflected Sarkozy’s willingness to strike that chord, echoing his one-time rival on the right and prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, a biographer of Napoleon. The influential German weekly Stern featured a photo of Sarkozy and the title “The New Napoleon” on its May 10, 2007, cover.

Yet for a German weekly to refer to the French president in this fashion did not mean that it was suggesting any comparison with Napoleonic aggression in the early 19th century, nor that it was drawing on any deep well of popular anxiety in this regard. Indeed, the detaching of historical reference from historical anxiety can be taken as a sign of maturity. Conversely, it can be suggested that this episode simply reflects the conditionality of historical reference.

Today, Germany scarcely has to fear French opposition. If, in contrast, a prominent French weekly had greeted a German electoral result with the cover headline, “The New Hitler,” then the situation would have been different. The reference would have been to a more recent episode. More crucially, it would have drawn on a stronger anxiety.

His critics applied the term “Bonapartism” to Charles de Gaulle, but Napoleon’s legacy has become considerably less contentious than it was in the 19th century. Then the legacy was strong, thanks, first, to Napoleon III’s repeated references to his uncle, and then to the Third Republic’s self-validation and its concern about the possibility of a military coup, particularly in 1888 by Georges Boulanger, a charismatic former general. At the same time, prominent politicians such as Adolphe Thiers, first president of the Third Republic from 1871 to 1873, and author of Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire (1845–1862), pushed a liberal legend about Napoleon being a man of the people.

By the 1960s, the political situation within France was very different. References to de Gaulle as a new Bonaparte lacked traction, and that was even truer in 2007. If this was the impact of a new history, one in which the crucial issue and frame of reference for France was Vichy and for Germany the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, then this new history was part of a reshaping of the past in which nationalism seemed redundant and anachronistic. This view of nationalism did not provide the best basis for recalling 19th-century battles, not least because France is a principal member of the European Union, and dwelling on battles like Leipzig or Waterloo is seen as evidence of an unwelcome and archaic nationalism, a throwback to the age of nationalism that culminated in World War I.

There are parallels in the changing treatment of Waterloo on screen. Several silent films tackled the battle, including The Battle of Waterloo (1913), an early “spectacular” produced by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company. This film was a historical reconstruction reportedly employing thousands of extras, including a squadron of lancers. The following year, a spoof of the film appeared under the title The Adventures of Pimple: The Battle of Waterloo. Starring the music-hall comedian Fred Evans, this film was one of a series of skits of popular books, films, and plays in which he portrayed the character of Pimple.

The most influential silent-screen account of the battle was Abel Gance’s 17-reel epic Napoléon (1927), an impressionist film, sponsored by the French Société Générale de Films, which was praised critically but couldn’t compete with talking films. That film was followed by Waterloo (1929), a German work directed by Karl Grune, in which Blücher played the key role in securing victory and Napoleon was treated as an eminent historical figure, not a villain.

The two main sound films of substance are The Iron Duke (1934), a British account focused on Wellington; and the Italian-Soviet epic Waterloo (1970), a darker work of epic proportions directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. The second film sharply portrayed the battle in terms of the clash between Napoleon and Wellington. The latter tells the Duchess of Richmond that Napoleon was not a gentleman, while Napoleon, pressured to abdicate by his marshals in 1814, declares, “Why is it always Wellington?” a remark that greatly exaggerates the duke’s importance at that stage.

Waterloo also found its way into television, and in Sharpe’s Waterloo (1997), the British hero organizes the defense of La Haie Sainte while the incompetence of a Dutch commander is emphasized.

A reshaping of the past away from nationalism affected the content and methods of academic military history. Instead of battles, war’s impact on society was emphasized, with particular interest in social groups that performed important functions on the home front. This approach worked for the two world wars, where it brought into focus the contribution of women to the war effort. As a result, a focus on battles appeared dated and unwelcome.

This approach, however, is seriously mistaken, as, more generally, is the attempt to demilitarize military history and, in particular, to leave out the fighting. The strength of the war-and-society approach in academic history, however, helps explain the mismatch between massive popular interest in Waterloo and its far more modest role in academic engagement and public history. Indeed, the 150th anniversary of the battle was not celebrated by an issue of commemorative stamps in 1965, though the 20th anniversary of the United Nations and its International Cooperation Year were.

In contrast, during Margaret Thatcher’s period as prime minister (1979–1990), portraits of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson and Wellington were hung in the dining room at 10 Downing Street, her residence and office, with the obvious intent of impressing foreign visitors. Thatcher flaunted a robust, historicized nationalism that the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed to match.

The Blair administration’s handling of the 2005 bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar may well be indicative of more recent developments. The government bent over backward to avoid offending France and, indeed, in order not to make any unwelcome reference, the naval recreation of the battle was presented as between a “Red Fleet” and a “Blue Fleet,” a much-derided choice of titles. The government largely ignored the bicentennial, did not plan to mark the anniversary in many other ways, and was caught off guard by the intensity of public interest.

Perhaps the same will be true of the Waterloo bicentennial in 2015. Internationalism is already forming as a clear theme for the observance. In his address at the launch of Waterloo 200, the official British guide and focal point for all organizations that wish to participate in the bicentennial events, Richard Holmes, a prominent military historian and a member of the bicentennial committee, declared, “We are celebrating the brave men of all sides, not just the British…. Such an event deserves to be commemorated internationally.” Holmes is also chairman of Project Hougoumont, an effort to preserve the farm that was the battleground, and during the project’s official launch on June 18, 2008, he declared:

In seeking to preserve this iconic spot we do not simply remember the British troops who held it. We also applaud the courage of the German infantry who fought for the wood in front of it, of the brave Frenchmen who came so close to taking it and turning the fortune of the day, and of the cavalry whose charges swirled up and down the slopes within sight of its ancient walls…. This is not a question of national pride or regimental commemoration.

Yet British pride in the battle persists. In 2008, the British Web site asked, “Have you a hero on your family tree that fought at Waterloo?” as it drew attention to the ability to search the Waterloo Medal Roll. Meanwhile, in France, the Victor Hugo poem “L’Expiation II,” which describes Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, had been “hijacked” by René Goscinny (1926–1977), the scenarist of the comic book Asterix chez les Belges (1979). The book ends with a big battle, the Romans opposing the Belgians and the Gauls, with parodied lines of the poem placed in cartouches “captioning” the images. In Goscinny’s usual style, several verses were also reused, in a less prominent way, in dialogue throughout the book, the most notable being Hugo’s plangent cry: Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! Morne plaine! (“Morne plaine” means “gloomy, or dismal, plain”), which Goscinny revises: Waterzooi! Waterzooi! Waterzooi! Morne plat! (Waterzooi is a traditional Belgian fish stew; “Morne plat” a “gloomy dish”).

In the 1995 reenactment of the battle, more reenactors were willing to serve in the French army than with its opponents. Moreover, Napoleon appeared to be popular with the Belgian spectators of this reenactment, which presumably reflected the extent to which his memory has been annexed to Walloon assertiveness in Belgium. In this case as in others, the political context of 1815, therefore, is ignored or misunderstood.

This process suits both modern political agendas and military historians, who prefer not to trouble themselves with politics. Thus, the argument, in 2001, in a piece on Napoleon and leadership, that Napoleon “would have won the battle, except for the arrival of Blücher and 60,000 Prussians” (problematic from the point of the fighting itself, as Wellington would not have fought there but for the promise of Prussian help), ignores the point that the Prussians were in Belgium because Napoleon’s political strategy in 1815 was nonsensical. Whatever the military skill—and at Waterloo such skill was not in conspicuous display—his leadership was toward a dead end.

Those who study Napoleon as a military commander need to remember this point. The current widespread lack of Western commitment to national accounts of military history is matched by hostility to the idea of imperialism, not only in Britain but also in the leading world power, the United States. It is not now fashionable to regard the overseas expansion of European empires, such as occurred in 1815–1845, as a cause for congratulation. But, in terms of the values of the early 19th century, the failure of such expansion might have proved very serious. As far as the world-historical issue of the rise of the West is concerned, the “tipping point” toward the triumph of the West was very much that of these decades.


This article is adapted from The Battle of Waterloo by Jeremy Black, ©2010, published by arrangement with Random House Inc.

Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here