A recent opinion poll suggests most Britons have never heard of the Battle of Waterloo, fought in the muddy fields of Belgium exactly 200 years ago, while the French would rather forget about it. Here’s all you need to know about Napoleon’s swansong.
According to the survey, commissioned by the UK’s National Army Museum, just under half of Britons associate the name “Waterloo” with the eponymous Abba song. The Swedish band’s iconic hit compares a girl’s surrender to romance to Napoleon’s surrender after the fateful battle. To this day, it remains the quintessential Eurovision song (it won the contest in 1974).
“I was defeated, you won the war.” We all know the lyrics to the Abba song, and we really ought to know that Napoleon was defeated 200 years ago. But who really won the war? The Duke of Wellington is the obvious answer – except he would probably have lost had it not been for the timely arrival of Prussian reinforcements under Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The veteran mustachioed commander was brought back from retirement after Napoleon’s flight from Elba in February 1815. His campaign against the French emperor got off to a dreadful start at the Battle of Ligny (more about that below), during which Blücher is said to have spent several hours trapped under his dead horse, repeatedly trampled by cavalry. But the Prussian leader rallied after the defeat and – after pouring litres of brandy on his wounds and down his throat – he raced to Wellington’s rescue at Waterloo.
Commemorative coins for World War I and D-Day have been selling like hot cakes in France of late. But French enthusiasm for anniversary coins stopped short last month when Paris found out that neighbouring Belgium was minting special two-euro coins for Waterloo (the battle took place on Belgian soil). The authorities in Brussels were forced to get rid of about 180,000 such coins after Paris sent a letter saying they could cause an “unfavourable reaction in France”. It turned out to be a boomerang. The world’s media had a field day mocking French “sore losers”, while Belgium outmanoeuvred its neighbour by releasing special €2.5 coins, using a little-known rule that allows eurozone countries to mint coins of their choice provided they are in an irregular denomination.
De Gaulle’s snub
The coin debacle was arguably France’s main contribution to the Waterloo bicentenary. The French will be conspicuously absent from the ceremonies in Belgium, which are expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors (including plenty of European royalty). But President François Hollande is hardly the first French leader to snub a Waterloo anniversary. In 1965, Charles De Gaulle declined to attend events marking 150 years since the battle, claiming he was too busy preparing the 900th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England. Touché !
The aptly named William the Conqueror is the last man to have conquered Britain (in 1066), a feat Napoleon was craving to emulate. After Horatio Nelson crushed the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, the French Emperor briefly contemplated digging a tunnel underneath the Channel to bypass the Royal Navy. That dream finally came true in 1994 with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. The old foes were all smiles when the Eurostar train service began linking Paris and London. But French travellers were soon reminded of why they still refer to England as the “Perfidious Albion” upon arriving at… Waterloo Station. Mercifully, Eurostar’s London terminal has since been moved to St Pancras International.
British strategy at Waterloo consisted largely in defending a ridge and three farms until the Prussians arrived. The farms of Papelotte, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont witnessed ferocious fighting throughout the battle, coming under repeated French attacks. “Never was a place more fiercely assaulted nor better defended,” Wellington later said of Hougoumont. The farm’s heroic defence is now the focus of British commemorations and London has spent one million pounds restoring the premises in time for the bicentenary. Indeed, Britons appear to have forgotten that for much of the battle Hougoumont’s defenders were mostly Dutch and German.
Some historians have argued that Waterloo should be described as a German victory, rather than a British one. We’ve mentioned Blücher’s role already. But his 50,000 black-coated Prussians were not the only Germans on the field that day. Just under half of Wellington’s British army also spoke German of some sort, says historian Brendan Simms. He describes the victorious army as a European coalition mixing Britons, Germans, Dutch, Walloons and Flemings.
Ultimately, the real cause of Napoleon’s defeat may have been an acute attack of haemorrhoids that stopped him riding his horse and keeping up his usual mobile supervision of troop movements. Two days before the battle, his doctors lost the leeches used to relieve the pain of his piles and accidentally overdosed him with laudanum, from whose ill-effects he was still suffering on the morning of the battle. Some analysts say this may explain why he delayed his attack till midday on June 18, thereby allowing Blücher’s Prussians to join the battle before nightfall.
“La Garde recule, sauve qui peut !” (The Guard retreats, save yourselves!). The desperate cry that went up from the French army in the last stages of the battle has come to embody Napoleon’s demise. Until Waterloo, the Imperial Guard had never tasted defeat. But by 1815 it was no longer the formidable force that had marched to victory at Austerlitz, Jena and Borodino – before sickness, hunger and bitter cold depleted its ranks during the ill-fated Russian campaign of 1812. Still, historians say Napoleon may well have won at Waterloo had he committed his elite troops earlier on in the battle, when British forces were stretched thin and the Prussians were yet to arrive.
Ligny (Battle of)
Fought just two days before Waterloo, the battle of Ligny was Napoleon’s last victory. The French defeated Blücher’s larger Prussian army, but were unable to deliver a knock-out blow, partly because Napoleon’s lieutenant Count d’Erlon failed to show up when ordered to attack the Prussians from the rear. Though beaten, Blücher’s scattered forces got away, regrouped and secured their revenge at Waterloo. Click on the player at the top of the page to watch an extract from the battle's reenactment on June 16, 2015.
Date created : 2015-06-18