Battle of Waterloo: the day the world changed

Two hundred years ago, on land just a few miles from Brussels, the Battle of Waterloo changed the course of history. The repercussions of Napoleon Bonaparte’s decisive defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington are still with us today.

9 July 2015

By Andrew Roberts, author of 'Napoleon: A Life'

Sunday, 18 June 1815 was one of those rare days of which one can say with certainty that one chapter in history ended and another began. It was the day of the Battle of Waterloo.

For the victor, the Duke of Wellington, it was a “damned near-run thing”. For the loser, Napoleon Bonaparte, it signalled the denouement of a truly extraordinary military and political career. For Europe and beyond it brought repercussions that remain with us even now.

This year we mark its bicentenary. There will be hundreds of speeches, books, dinners, commemorative coins, festivals, museum exhibitions, TV programmes and newspaper and magazine articles — this one included. There will even be a full-scale, on-site reconstruction featuring a cast of 50,000. Amid the commemorations, the celebrations, the pomp and the pontificating, we would do well to pause and reflect on precisely why Waterloo still matters so much today.

Portrait of Napoleon: 
Lebrecht Music and Arts
Photo Library/Alamy

Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica in 1769 and was educated in France from the age of nine. He was only 20 by the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution but had already recognised that France held the key to achieving his grand ambitions.

By the age of 27 he was commander-in-chief of France’s Army of Italy, winning a series of battles against the Austrians. He went on to invade Egypt before returning to France in 1799, still aged just 30, to overthrow Paris’s Directory government in a military coup, install himself as First Consul and embark on what amounted to a dictatorship that would cast a shadow over Europe.

His promotion of Enlightenment ideas provoked fear in the old European monarchies. The likes of Austria, Russia and Prussia believed notions such as equality before the law, religious toleration, the abolition of feudalism and the championing of meritocracy — ideals for which the French had deposed and decapitated the Bourbon king Louis XVI — represented a threat to their supremacy. Given that such conceits were fundamentally opposed to the whole basis of the rule exercised by the Habsburg, Romanov and Hohenzollern dynasties, their anxiety was well founded.

In Britain, which had adopted Enlightenment principles long before the French Revolution, the governing elite were just as shocked by Louis XVI’s guillotining. But they also recognised that the ideological wars that beckoned offered an opportunity to triumph at last in the Anglo-French struggle that had kept the two countries at war for 63 of the previous 125 years.

France had already been at war with Austria and Prussia for seven years and with Britain for six when Napoleon seized power. The country was almost a failed state: near-bankrupt, demoralised, hyper-inflationary, controlled by deeply corrupt Directors and utterly tired of conflict. Within six years, under Napoleon’s aegis, the nation was restored to the most powerful in Europe, as it had been during the reign of Louis XIV a century earlier.

There was even a period of peace. Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800 ushered in five years of much-needed respite, during which he radically overhauled almost every aspect of French politics, economics, education, law, public administration, society, religion and the military.

Yet the Austrians could not forget they had ruled northern Italy for two centuries before Napoleon’s advent. In 1805, 1809 and 1813 they endeavoured to recapture the region. In 1806 Prussia, too, attacked, while Britain kept up a long campaign at sea to cut France off from her overseas markets and possessions. An acknowledged military genius, Napoleon ensured his country won almost every battle at which he was present from 1796 to 1812; but he committed two cardinal errors.

Map: Courtesy FCIT  

The first came in 1807-1808, when he invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The result was the Peninsular War, which not only left France with a quarter of a million casualties but failed in its original objective of forcing Portugal to stop trading with Britain. Much more seriously, in 1812 he invaded Russia, also in a bid to thwart trading with Britain: more than half a million of his followers were killed or wounded. 

Thus Napoleon’s desperation to use economic factors to force Britain to the negotiating table succeeded only in destroying his ultimate power base, his Grande Armée. Consequently, he lost both wars. Suitably bolstered, the Austrians (then at peace with France after Napoleon’s marriage to the Emperor of Austria’s daughter, the Archduchess Marie Louise) and the Prussians (who had been crushed at the Battle of Jena in 1806) rose up against the French once more in 1813.

They were joined by Russia, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and various German states to form the Sixth Coalition, whose victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig, where he was outnumbered two-to-one, led to his abdication in 1814. He was exiled on Elba, within sight of his birthplace, but that was far from the end of the story.

In a campaign known as the Hundred Days, Napoleon attempted to reverse the easy rise-and-fall trajectory that was the fate of so many other empires. He escaped from Elba in February 1815, regained power from the Bourbons without a shot being fired and set about the campaign that would culminate in his ultimate downfall — a defeat so final, so complete, that the phrase “to meet one’s Waterloo” has since entered the language to describe total nemesis.

What happened next?

What followed Waterloo was, first of all, a genuine revolution in the art of diplomacy. The world’s first multinational summit meeting, the Congress of Vienna, which in some circles was known as “the United Nations”, had met while Napoleon was on Elba and duly oversaw a coordinated response upon learning of his escape. It was nothing less than the forerunner of multinational peace-keeping, in which several nations confer about how to punish aggressors and work together to deal with international transgressions. The Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the modern G8, G9 and G20 conclaves, the UN Security Council — all of these means of settling international disputes can trace their origins to the discussions that led to the signing of the Treaty of Vienna after Waterloo.

Perhaps inevitably, the rise and fall of other empires also ensued. Napoleon’s defeat dangerously diminished France’s power just as Prussia — which enjoyed a national resurgence while fighting against him in 1813 — became more self-confident. By the 1850s and 1860s the Prussian premier, Otto von Bismarck, was able to unify — by persuasion and realpolitik but also by naked aggression — the German states that Napoleon had deliberately kept fragmented. The German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles after Prussia’s victory over Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, in the Franco-Prussian War. After Bismarck’s death it took very little for a German Empire dominant in Europe to settle on a collision course with Britain and France — a confrontation that would ultimately lead to the First World War.

For its part, the British Empire emerged from Waterloo having disposed of its key overseas competitor for the crucial period of imperial development in Asia, Africa, Australasia and elsewhere. Britain had no desire for European land territory, but the strategic naval bases inherited following Napoleon’s demise — among them Cape Town, Tobago, Sri Lanka and Heligoland — secured the Royal Navy a number of strategic stations that helped Britian fulfil its imperial ambitions.

In France, meanwhile, post-Waterloo political instability inaugurated a second Bourbon restoration, a revolution, an Orleanist monarchy, another revolution, the Second Republic, a Bonapartist restoration (under Napoleon III) and the Third Republic — all in the space of just 56 years. French leaders didn’t know whether to try to emulate Napoleon or repudiate him; and in a sense they still don’t, with the Gaullist right still admiring him and the left criticising him. The cult of the strong leader still bedevils French politics, and the constitution Charles de Gaulle wrote for the Fifth Republic reflected that. Today Napoleon’s Conseil d’État still meets every Wednesday to vet the laws of France, his Banque de France is the state bank, his lycées and grandes écoles still provide excellent education, his Legion d’Honneur award is hugely coveted, his Cour des Comptes oversees the public accounts and his Code Napoleon forms the basis of European law.

Further repercussions continue to be felt on the grandest scale. For example, English might not have become the lingua franca it is today — dominant not only in terms of the spoken and written word but in the spheres of computing, international business and the internet — if Napoleon had won at Waterloo. A resurgent French Empire might have challenged British rule over India in the 19th century, but instead the Indian elite and middle class — and many millions more on the sub-continent — speak English; by contrast, French is a shrinking language.

It seems not even Napoleon himself foresaw the impacts and corollaries of that single day 200 years ago. During his exile on the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena, where he would spend the remainder of his life, he reflected on his legacy, suggesting it would be his educational, legal and administrative reforms and his architectural triumphs that would survive and that his feats on the fields of combat would have no long-lasting influence.

He was right about his first 59 battles, but he was very wrong about his 60th and last. The cannon-fire of Waterloo still reverberates.​

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