Did it really change history?

This is the year the Battle of Waterloo is commemorated. Next week, it will be reenacted in fields near Brussels. John Lichfield’s article on the importance of this battle is quite interesting, as he debunks a myth or two. 

As for the planned fancy-dress ado: this reenactment also urgently needs to be debunked, but this will probably upset those taking part. No idea how they’re going to reenact military manoeuvres when a large part of the battle field has disappeared. For much of the original battle field was totally spoilt only a few years after 1815. An idiot caused a monstrous, man-made hill sporting a gigantic lion on top, to be created on it.

The idiot was Slender Billy. Wellington tried to keep him out of harms way. Nevertheless, Billy managed to scratch his arm. Covered in plenty bandages, the arm won him a Carz’ daughter.

As the waltzing Congress of Vienna had ensured, part of what’s now Belgium – including the Waterloo battlefield –  became the property of the Oranje-Nassau family, this hill-billy had the monstrosity created to commemorate his awfully important role in the battle. A bit later on, car parks, tourist information and souvenir buildings, a panorama, restaurants and other junk were added to the spot.

It is interesting to read, that most of those who died during the real battle were actually not French or English. As various authors have pointed out, Napoleon’s previous wars had kind of bled his country dry of cannon fodder. Throughout the countries he and his family members occupied, the male population was conscripted and forced to enter his army.

Especially, when Napoleon needed fodder to make up his Grande Armee and of course even more so, after its defeat. To get an impression of how many lives Napoleon’s Russian campaign cost, read for instance the recent articles by Ilya Ermolaev and Ruud Spruit in the catalogue of the present exhibition in the Amsterdam Hermitage. The best and most readable book on this campaign remains, according to me, Adam Zamoyski’s one.

As for Wellington’s troops. He was of course Irish and so were one in three of his soldiers on the Waterloo Battlefield. Then, there were of course the other coalition troops and armies involved in the pre-battle skirmishes and the battle itself. For the military action started far earlier than the large day-long battle which will be reenacted.

Lichfield quite rightly considers Nelson’s battle of Trafalgar far more important as far as historic impact is concerned. It ensured English naval supremacy.Then there were of course also the French revolution, the agricultural and industrial revolution, population growth, as well as the results of the Congress of Vienna.

That Lichfield considers the marital bed to have played an important role in putting an end to France’s supremacy, is open to discussion. Napoleon certainly changed history, but it may have been the results of the Battle of Trafalgar and his Russian campaign, rather than his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, which had the greatest impact.

Independent, John Lichfield: Battle of Waterloo
Hermitage Amsterdam: Alexander, Josephine, Napoleon
Adam Zamoyski’s “Napoleon’s fatal march”


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