This June we will be a short two years from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo*. It is expected to be a large event, especially since the 100th anniversary was not celebrated because it fell in the middle of WWI. That gives us enough time to reconsider the battle and to read the histories and reports about it. Wouldn’t it be grand to stand on the field that day, 200 years later?
I have been reading about Napoleon’s campaigns and the events of his reign for many decades, since the early 1970s when I first read David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (a book still on my shelves). Dozens of books have been written on the battle, and continue to be written.
I played through many, many wargames of his battles and campaigns, but always for wargamers, Waterloo was a popular and often-played battle. I still have copies of the SPI “Napoleon’s Last Battles” quad game, but, sadly, no one with whom to play it.
As Wellington called it, it was a “near run thing.” The chances for either side to win were close, and if you play the entire three-day campaign in a wargame, starting with the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, you have many strategic opportunities to see how history might have changed, had another path been taken, or a different result developed in these earlier clashes.
Looking back, the battle has become the stuff of legend, with not a small amount of mythology mixed into the tale. It was a relatively literate era, and afterwards many accounts of the battle were written, first-hand and the analysts who followed later. Historians have argued over many points in the day, what effect they had, what mistakes were made, what happened and what might have happened.
Would anything have changed, had Napoleon won? Like every other pivotal battle – Agincourt, Gettysburg, the Bulge, the Somme and others – the arguments over the what-ifs continue even today. And would the changes have been long-lasting?
In his book, The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, author Alessandro Barbero suggests that the immediate impact of Napoleon’s win would have seen several – and critical – changes to European politics, but that by 1850 the paths of history would have essentially wended their way to what happened when he lost:
“One might further suppose that the history of the world after approximately 1850 would have been perfectly identical with the one we know today.”
I am not sure. The Alliance that met Napoleon at Waterloo was incomplete; Austrian and Russian armies were either assembling or already marching towards France, but still weeks away. Had the Prussians managed to retreat in reasonably good order, and met up with the Austrians and Russians, they might have had the force to defeat Napoleon. Waterloo would have been a footnote, and some later battle been remembered.
On the other hand, the morale of those armies and their leaders would have been shaken; perhaps Napoleon would have been able to broker a peace on the basis of his potential threat, and Europe would have subsided into peace after Waterloo.
Win or lose, it was certainly a pivotal battle that should never be forgotten. On the Waterloo200 site, it notes:
The battle of Waterloo was a milestone in European history. It ended over 20 years of conflict in Europe. It involved many nations and heralded over 50 years of peace and stability. The battle was the culmination of a long campaign, fought in Spain and Portugal, by the Duke of Wellington and his allied armies. The commemoration of this seminal event will reflect the strategy and planning of the campaign in a modern context and will involve people of many nations.
As for Barbero’s book, can one find something new and interesting to say about a battle that has been so heavily dissected, analyzed and commented on for almost 200 years? Yes, it seems so. His account is both concise and exciting.
Barbero provides a terrific overview of the battle, focusing on several aspects that, while not necessarily new, create some salient points that, in his analysis, help define what happened at each stage. The cavalry charges, the use of fusiliers, the muddy ground, the terrain, the arrival of the Prussians on Wellington’s left… his well-crafted account is highly readable by both lay persons and historians.**
The anniversary of the battle is June 18. This coming anniversary will be 198 years since the battle. You could start your celebrations early by reading Barbero’s book.
* Waterloo was not actually fought at Waterloo, but rather near the hamlets of Mont St. Jean and La Belle Alliance, and both France and Prussia named the battle after those places, respectively. But Wellington referred to it as the “Battle of Waterloo” in his dispatches, so the name stuck for English speakers.
** The weak spot in his otherwise excellent book being his poor selection of battlefield maps to illustrate the many phases of the day. However, I have numerous other books with the battle well-mapped, including the West Point Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars.