Waterloo in which each side fought for a different kind of liberty


[It’s easy to be pro Napoleon] if your last foreign invaders arrived in 1066.

So Waterloo was 200 years ago today: a battle so terrible that afterward you asked who had survived, not who had died.

It was an odd battle. Those who fought against the imperialist side were less personally free than those who fought for the imperialist side. It’s also clear that whatever moral principle might been at stake in Belgium, 1815, generally didn’t hold good outside the boundaries of Europe.

Some people think a Napoleonic Europe would have been a good thing. It’s easy to be pro Napoleon if your last foreign invaders arrived in 1066. Yes, it is true that Napoleon’s laws were rational and his culture egalitarian. However,  his handling of Imperial economics was less than optimum. Worse, in my eyes at least, he had an Olympian view of spending the lives of others:

A man like me troubles himself little about a million men.

(My 11-year-old son Kurtzhau picked up on this. Speaking of the Battle of Lodi in which Napoleon basically took a bridge meatgrinder style, he said: “That would have been great if it have been an RTS battle. But those were real men.”)

It’s ironic that while Napoleon’s egalitarian French adhered to the column, the aristocratic British created the Rifle Brigade and ushered in something like modern infantry tactics. Even more so that the appallingly snobbish Wellington liked to put his men — who he famously once referred to as “scum” — safely on reverse slopes. It was Wellington, not Napoleon, who wept over the dead and wrote:

Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.

However, my main problem with the Emperor Napoleon was that he was an Emperor.

Even great rulers get old, go sour. At the dog end of a reign, the wolves roam unchecked. Worse, as Machiavelli observed, weak rulers usually follow the strong — the inheritor invariably believes the rhetoric of destiny and divine rule, and shuns the realpolitik and hard work that it masks. Then everything goes to Hell, or should I say Ragnarok?

No. Any Golden Age of Napoleon would have been overshadowed by the apocalyptic struggles of his successors.

A writer’s job is not to judge, just to put imaginative boots on the ground. Even so, I am proud that any of my ancestors who were at that battle would have been wearing a red coat.


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3 comments on “Waterloo in which each side fought for a different kind of liberty
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    More recently, we have only to look at the precipitous decline in quality of the Bush emperors: Vannevar Bush was a remarkably bright man who never made it to emperor status, George Bush the First wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (even compared with predecessors like Reagan), and George Bush the Second almost makes Dan Quayle seem like a viable alternative. Almost, I hasten to add. (The rumour that he was chosen to ensure no assassin would be foolish enough to try to knock off Bush Père is amusing to contemplate.)

    As the saying goes, there’s no form of government more efficient than a benign and enlightened dictatorship — and no worse form in the long term. As you note, the problem comes with the heirs of the emperor, particularly if (as is common) they feel some urge to distinguish themselves from their parents. That usually doesn’t end well.

    • Neil MacCormack says:

      You’re quite right about emperors, and autocratic rulers generally: absolute power corrupts absolutely etc., and heirs may be incompetent or worse. Had Napoleon been eventually victorious in establishing French hegemony throughout Europe, his legacy would likely have been repressive rule punctuated by national revolts (but didn’t something of that sort happen anyway? just with more than one empire). I thought, however, I might challenge one or two of your assertions.

      The “million men” quote comes via Metternich, who had an axe to grind. Of course anyone who commands in war soon learns it’s not whether you will get men killed, it’s how many and to what purpose. At Lodi, Bonaparte sought to swiftly overcome a rearguard detachment in his pursuit of a retreating Austrian army. In the age of muzzle-loaded firearms a frontal charge could succeed, and if it had he might have caught up with Beaulieu’s main force and destroyed it, the quicker victory thus saving the thousands of lives lost in the subsequent siege of Mantua and sundry relief attempts. Napoleon’s adversaries were quite as willing to spend lives, and if Wellington was less so it was principally because he commanded a smaller army.

      Regarding tactics, the French Army’s use of columns (ordre profonde – in most cases thick lines, say battalions formed on a front of two companies with the remaining 4-6 companies behind) or any other formation was just as “modern” as in any other European army, and French soldiers proved adept at skirmishing. If there was a difference it was that the British and other armies regarded light infantry work as the province of special regiments, and thus potentially an elite – something the British achieved with their rifle regiments. As for reverse slope deployment, this did not guarantee safety from loss – certainly not at Waterloo – nor was it wholly the preserve of Wellington: Marshal Victor successfully used this tactic at the Beresina in 1812.

      But isn’t historical memory strange? A man dead for two centuries who ruled for only 15 years – a blip in time – and suffered total defeat is universally recognised by his first name and still provokes controversy, while the sovereigns who ultimately defeated him, their ministers and generals are mostly consigned to oblivion. Even Wellington is remembered chiefly because he beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

      BTW re: ancestors – can you be sure there isn’t a Continental branch of your family whose member(s) might have fought on the French side?

  2. mharoldpage says:

    Well said! However, I still think that, paradoxically, Wellington has the edge on humanity.

    Looking at his post Waterloo behaviour and lifestyle, I sometimes wonder if he had PTSD.

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