In the second part of our guide to the Battle of Waterloo, fought exactly 200 years ago, we look at the role played by faulty maps, Scottish cavalry – and 15,000 Soviet actors – in Napoleon’s demise.
Napoleon made an unusual number of mistakes at Waterloo, not all of which can be blamed on his haemorrhoids (see Part 1). A printing error in the map used by the French emperor may explain why witnesses said he appeared lost on the battlefield. According to a French television documentary that reported the error, the strategic farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was shown a kilometre from its real location – a considerable gap considering that it was also the range of Napoleon’s cannons.
Most of the blame for France’s defeat has been heaped on Napoleon’s most trusted lieutenant, Marshal Michel Ney. The man Napoleon once praised as “the bravest of the brave” was suitably brave at Waterloo. He worked through five horses during the battle, raced up and down the field tirelessly and shouted to his men “Watch how a Marshal of France dies”. He somehow failed to die, but his tactical choices probably caused many more deaths – not least his decision to launch the French cavalry straight at the British infantry, without artillery support. Ney also failed to spike enemy cannons after briefly overrunning British lines, allowing Wellington’s men to use them again once the French had retreated.
Peace at last
With around 50,000 dead, wounded or captured, the Battle of Waterloo was an absolute bloodbath. But it also ushered in a century of relative peace in the war-torn continent, governed by the so-called Concert of Europe that brought together the five great powers of the age: Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and France. Rattled by revolution and two decades of uninterrupted war, the monarchies of Europe decided they were better off cooperating in order to hold the peace (and keep each other in power). Despite a few hiccups, the balance of powers worked fairly smoothly until the continent notoriously "sleepwalked into war" in 1914.
Quatre-Bras (Battle of)
While Napoleon was busy routing the Prussians at Ligny on June 16, his lieutenant Ney was supposed to catch the British napping at the strategic crossroads of Quatre-Bras. The aim was to drive a wedge between the allied armies and allow Napoleon to crush them separately. Ney’s assault effectively prevented the British from helping their Prussian allies at Ligny. But the French were unable to break the dogged resistance put up by Wellington’s lieutenant, the Prince of Orange, and his mostly Dutch and German troops. As an exiled Napoleon later wrote, "But for the heroic determination of the Prince of Orange, who, with a handful of men dared to stand firm at Quatre-Bras, I would have taken the English army in flagrante delicto”.
Had Napoleon succeeded in defeating both the British and Prussians, he would still have had to face their Russian and Austrian allies, who were also eager to crush the French emperor once and for all. As it turned out, the fighting was over before the Russians could have a go at their old foe. But they made up for it 155 years later by supplying 15,000 Soviet troops and 2,000 cavalrymen for the 1970 epic film “Waterloo”, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon. It was said at the time that the Russian filmmaker was in command of the world's seventh largest army.
The charge of Britain’s Royal Scots Greys, a defining moment in the Battle of Waterloo, also featured prominently in Bondarchuk’s film. Its dramatic portrayal in an 1881 painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler is still one of the most famous images of the battle. It’s easy to forget that the legendary cavalcade on the rain- and blood-soaked fields actually took place at more of a trot.
Towns, cheeses and other Waterloos
There are around 50 towns named after the battle (itself named after the original Belgian town) around the world, including some 30 in the United States alone – although one of them is now a ghost town in New Mexico. Waterloo, Quebec, is the only predominantly French-speaking town. The battle also shares its name with an English cheese, a famous street in Hong-Kong and an island in the Antarctic.
The Napoleonic Wars have produced some of the best known amputees in military history. Horatio Nelson famously induced the phrase “to turn a blind eye” when he pretended not to see a signal ordering him to retreat at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 (he raised his telescope to his left eye, which really was blind). He also lost an arm in action. Another British hero, Lord Uxbridge, left a limb on the field of Waterloo. Uxbridge was riding near Wellington when a cannon ball shattered his right leg. The ensuing conversation is often evoked as a prime example of British stiff upper lip. “By God, sir, I’ve lost a leg!” Uxbridge is said to have told Wellington. “By God, sir, so you have!” the Duke replied before galloping off. The severed leg went on to become a tourist attraction and was jealously guarded by Belgian authorities, who ignored British requests to have it returned.
Vive l’Empereur !
Wellington and his allies may have won the battle, but there is no doubt the focus of commemorations is on the loser, Napoleon. Today the battlefield is dominated by cafés and souvenir shops named after the French emperor. Its visitors sip Champagne Napoléon as they rue his unfortunate defeat. And while French authorities have largely ignored the bicentenary, this weekend’s reenactment of the battle will see thousands of Napoleon fans from around the world sporting uniforms of the Grande Armée and eager to shout “Vive l’Empereur !” (though sadly Mark Schneider, the veteran Napoleon impersonator whom FRANCE 24 recently interviewed, will not be playing Bonaparte's role this year).
Stephen Clarke: why the French think they won at Waterloo
If it’s any consolation, Wellington can take pride in his unlikely and enduring contribution to the world of fashion. The fancy boots in polished calfskin he wore at Waterloo proved an instant hit with London’s high society. As their maker George Hoby put it, “If Lord Wellington had any other bootmaker, he never would have had his great successes; my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all difficulties.”
Date created : 2015-06-18