200 years since Waterloo’s ‘nearest run thing’

Unto the breach: Lady Butler’s 1881 painting shows the start of the cavalry charge at Waterloo.

Commemorations in Belgium will today mark two centuries since Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. But should we really remember bloody battles as the defining moments in history?

‘It has been a damned nice thing,’ said the Duke of Wellington at the end of the Battle of Waterloo. ‘The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.’

Commemorative events will take place in Belgium today for the 200th anniversary of the end of one of Europe’s bloodiest wars. On 18 June 1815, 68,000 British, Dutch and German troops were outnumbered by 72,000 French, led by their emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most formidable military commanders in history. He had put an end to the bloody instability of the French Revolution and gone on to conquer and reform Europe in its image.

This spectacular campaign led to over a decade of war. In 1814 he had been defeated and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Yet by June the next year he had escaped, reclaimed his title, gathered his armies and marched on Brussels. At Waterloo he met the allied troops, led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon had more men, but Wellington held the tactical advantage. Using their position on higher ground and making full use of the wet conditions and high corn fields, the allies managed to hold off Napoleon’s army until the arrival of Prussian forces later in the day. Tens of thousands died, but the anti-Napoleonic alliance triumphed. Napoleon was exiled again — this time for good.

The writer Victor Hugo described the battle as ‘a change of direction in the universe’. It marked the rise of the British Empire, which would dominate the globe for over a century. It also ushered in a period of relative peace in Western Europe, which would not face such a major threat until the beginning of the First World War 99 years later.

This may be why the battle is so widely commemorated in Britain. It is remembered in works of art as diverse as Waterloo station, the Wellington Arch, and Abba’s first number one hit. Today, on its 200th anniversary, Prince Charles will unveil a memorial at the battlefield and 5,000 actors will recreate the events of the fateful day.

Lest we forget

There are many key battles which deserve to be commemorated, say historians. The events at Hastings, Bosworth and Normandy’s beaches all helped to create the world we live in, often deciding the course of history in a single day. Battles are brutal; we should honour those who lost their lives by telling the story of their sacrifice.

But some ask whether we are remembering the ‘wrong’ history. 1815 was also the year that George Stephenson invented the steam engine, a machine which would galvanise the industrial revolution and help create the prosperous society of today. Trade, technological innovation and peaceful progress are the real driving forces of history; we should celebrate them instead.

You Decide

  1. Was 1815 the most important year in British history? If not — what was?
  2. Should we commemorate technological advances in the same way that we commemorate wars?

Activities

  1. Research the events of the battle and write a diary entry for 18 June from the point of view of one of the soldiers — you can decide who they are fighting for.
  2. What is the most important lesson society can learn from the fall of Napoleon? Debate this question as a class.

Some People Say...

“In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is one battle so important?
Learning from history is always important, but many see Waterloo as the beginning of the modern era. Europe’s war-weary leaders agreed to work together in a power-balancing act called the ‘Concert of Europe’, which aimed to guarantee that no one country would become too overbearingly powerful. Trade and industry flourished, and European leaders turned their attention to colonising other parts of the world.
A long period of peace in Europe following a massive war? That sounds familiar...
The parallels with the period since World War Two are striking! But perhaps that should serve as a warning: the comparatively peaceful century that followed the Napoleonic Wars ended catastrophically in 1914 with horrors of World War One. Could it happen again? Who knows...

Word Watch

Nice
Wellington did not mean that the battle was pleasant when he described it as ‘nice’ — that is a relatively recent usage. At the time, it could be used to mean uncertain or risky.
French Revolution
The French monarchy was overthrown in 1789 to make way for many years of bloodshed and uncertainty as new rulers were overthrown and members of the nobility were executed. Napoleon’s rise to power put an end to the turmoil, but he stayed true to the revolution’s principles of class equality and freedom from religious rule.
Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley has been remembered as one of Britain’s greatest generals but later he would become one of its most unpopular prime ministers. He strongly opposed social reform.
Prussian
Prussia was a kingdom in north-eastern Germany. Over the 19th century, its militaristic leaders conquered much of Germany and ultimately came to rule the first German state.
Industrial revolution
The arrival of the steam engine allowed people and goods to be transported across the country at unprecedented speeds — a development which fuelled Britain’s economy.

Subjects

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