The Perse School

Waterloo: causes, courses and consequences

23 May 2016

Report from 400th Anniversary Community Lecture, Wednesday 18 May

Who won the Battle of Waterloo? Hardly a testing question for a pub quiz, you might wonder, let alone a valid topic for an hour-long lecture. Yet an audience at The Perse were persuaded by Professor Sir Richard Evans to set aside the received wisdom of not only who won, but why the battle was fought and how important it was.

For, as the historian and President of Wolfson College explained, the victorious army was not in fact British but multinational, with Germans predominating.  Wellington’s task was to hold the line until the Prussian army, led by Marshal Blücher, arrived. Napoleon’s task was to break the allied line before this happened. The success of Marshal Ney against the Allies came too late, and as Prussian forces poured onto the battlefield and Dutch troops arrived, the French forces were pushed back. It was this second phase of the battle that proved decisive therefore, Evans argued, it was Marshal Blücher who effectively won the battle, not Wellington whose army, in any case, was only British in a minority.

Did Blücher  defeat the French, as commonly perceived? The army commanded by Napoleon did indeed consist of Frenchmen, but Napoleon was an outlaw, not Emperor of the French, and many of the French did not support him. The legitimate French government was a member of the Allied Coalition, so in one sense could actually be seen as sitting on the winning side.

Turning to the battle’s influence on the events that followed, Evans argued that while it certainly brought the end of the Napoleonic dream, with its leader exiled to St Helena as a result, several other armies were converging on France; the odds against Napoleon were overwhelming and it was only a matter of time before the European powers gathered at the Congress of Vienna defeated him.

Yet his exile did not the end of his reforms bring; custom and privilege were replaced by rationality and uniformity everywhere he had ruled. His bureaucrats had reorganised, systemised and standardised. In France ‘Bonapartism’ came to stand for patriotism, equality, social order and political stability, among others, while elsewhere he was immortalised in folk tales and served as an inspiration to some countries and radicals.

Napoleon’s ability to raise such a large force in such a short time spurred the major Allies to establish a system of international relations, the Concert of Europe, to prevent a recurrence of anything like the Napoleonic Wars. This was decisive. Uprisings in Italy and Spain were crushed by concerted international action as a result, and there were no major wars in Europe for over a century. At this point, Prof Evans did not miss the opportunity to make a point about peace, stability and the forthcoming EU referendum.

Why does the man or woman in the street hold such apparently inaccurate views about the battle? Evans noted that, just as the folklore grew up around Napoleon, so it grew around Wellington – aided in no small part by his own attempts to manage his image, reputation and version of events at Waterloo. He was clearly successful – the national hero received a ‘massive state funeral’ on his death in 1850.

This was a deeply insightful and detailed account of the battle, its context and aftermath, full of colourful descriptions of the protagonists (the ‘extravagant, gluttonous and enormously fat’ Louis XVIII, cloaked in furs, travelling in a coach since he was unable to walk) and beautifully illustrated with art by Turner, Northen and Beaume.


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