On 26 February, 1815, Napoleon, exiled after his defeat by the Allied powers, took ship from Elba. His flotilla of half-a-dozen small vessels was led by the 300-ton 16-gun Inconstant, painted to resemble an English ship. He slipped away while his British jailer, Col Sir Neil Campbell had taken a few days leave to socialise on the Italian mainland.
On 1 March he landed on French soil near Antibes. He had been permitted a small army – more a glorified honour guard – to accompany him to his exile in Elba and this force, a little over a thousand men, was all he had with him. As he marched north towards Paris, though, more and more of the troops of the French army switched their loyalty from an unpopular King Louis back to their old Emperor. When he finally reached the capital, the city was undefended. The king had fled and Napoleon was carried into the Tuileries on the shoulders of the crowd.
Napoleon’s return horrified the governments of Europe. It was naturally assumed that the Corsican Tyrant would once again threaten the peace of the continent and plans were set in motion to crush him militarily. The armies of Austria and Russia would advance on Paris from the east, while Britain and Prussia move their forces into position in the Low Countries to attack from the north.
Napoleon saw his only possibility of escape in a pre-emptive strike. The first armies to reach the French borders would be those of Britain and Prussia. Combined, they would be too strong for him, but if they could be attacked before they joined together, then he believed that they could be beaten one after the other. His forces would control Belgium, as well as France. Many of the Belgian troops, like the old French army, would return to follow the Emperor they had served up until only the year before. Thus reinforced, he would be able to negotiate with the Austrians and Russians, who would leave him alone in Paris in exchange for promises that he would not seek to expand his rule any further.
It was always a desperate plan. If he beat the British, his forces might well take so many casualties that they would no longer be in any position to attack the Prussians. Even in the unlikely event of his beating one army after the other, why should the Austrians and the Russians hold back from taking Paris – especially as he had had to withdraw most of the troops that might defend it to give him any chance of success in Belgium? Desperate or not, though, it was the only chance he had, so on 15 June French forces crossed the border into Belgium.
At first, Napoleon had some success. On 16 June, his forces defeated the Prussian army at Ligny. Napoleon expected them to withdraw eastward back toward Prussia. He thought he had achieved his goal of splitting the Prussian and British armies and he drove on North to where the British had formed a defensive line just south of the village of Waterloo. Napoleon had made a major blunder in assuming that the Prussians had fled eastward. In fact, they were heading toward Waterloo to join with the British.
The battle that took place on 18 June, 1815 was not a subtle affair. Wellington knew that he did not have enough troops to defeat the French, so his strategy was to hold a defensive position until the Prussians arrived to assist him.
The fighting started some time before noon. (Watches in those days were not reliable and excited men make mistakes, so we cannot be sure exactly when the first shot was fired.) The first Prussian troops probably arrived in the mid-afternoon, but the main force wasn’t ready to attack the French until after seven in the evening. For more than seven hours the British had held their position against repeated cavalry charges and the attacks of the French infantry, whilst under continual fire from 250 guns. By the end of the day, 15,000 of Wellington’s army lay dead or wounded among around 50,000 casualties that fell at Waterloo.
In the years that followed, a battle notable mainly for its sheer bloodiness and horror became a myth of British military glory and the decisive engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. These claims have to be treated with some scepticism. Napoleon, as we have seen, was making a desperate last play. Even if he had won the battle, the Russians and Austrians would still have taken Paris. The future of Europe was not decided on the battlefield of Waterloo. And, if it had been, it is not the British who would have decided it. The intervention of the Prussians was crucial: without them, it is doubtful that Wellington’s troops could have survived. And even the men who held the line for the British field marshal were far from obviously British. Wellington’s forces included Dutch and Belgian troops: 45% of them were German-speaking.
The myth of Waterloo, though, had an enormous influence on Britain over the next hundred years. The country never looked at itself in quite the same way again. Waterloo left the British convinced of their pre-eminence in Europe, a conviction so strong that it generated its own reality.
The battle also became a powerful symbol of national unity. The sight of Scots troops fighting so decisively alongside the English led to a new view of Scotland. Suddenly it was acceptable, even fashionable, to be a Scot. Waterloo had both strengthened the unity of the nation and allowed it to accept some of the differences within it.
Twentieth century notions of the quintessence of Britishness – coolness under fire, holding firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, even, dare it be said, making a virtue of cobbling together a solution from the limited resources available instead of properly planning ahead – all these things started with images of the Iron Duke and his men at Waterloo and in the days preceding the battle.
Waterloo was, for Britain, the defining battle of its age. It reshaped the way the British viewed themselves and set the stage for a century of Empire. It is doubtful that it had a significant impact on the future of Europe. However those eight hours in June two hundred years ago had an enormous effect on the future of Britain.
Tom Williams has travelled to Argentina, Borneo and Paris to research locations for his books but, despite spending an awful lot of weekends with relatives in Brussels, he has never actually been to Waterloo. He feels a bit guilty about that.
Tom’s latest book, Burke at Waterloo is out now.