Chirac meets his Waterloo

Tomorrow, the French President will be entertained at Windsor Castle in the Waterloo Chamber, diplomatically re-labelled the Music Room for the day. But what is the legacy of the historic battle? By John Lichfield
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Waterloo is many things. Waterloo was, first of all, and still is, a village, south-east of Brussels. Or, rather, it is no longer a village but a smart international suburb, with posh restaurants, a big shopping mall and a drive-in McDonald's. Waterloo is also a railway station; and a pop song (Abba, 1974). Most of all, of course, it is a battle, fought on 18 June 1815, in which many thousands of Germans, Dutch, and soon-to-be Belgians, helped by a minority of Britons and Irishmen, defeated the French.

Waterloo is many things. Waterloo was, first of all, and still is, a village, south-east of Brussels. Or, rather, it is no longer a village but a smart international suburb, with posh restaurants, a big shopping mall and a drive-in McDonald's. Waterloo is also a railway station; and a pop song (Abba, 1974). Most of all, of course, it is a battle, fought on 18 June 1815, in which many thousands of Germans, Dutch, and soon-to-be Belgians, helped by a minority of Britons and Irishmen, defeated the French.

Surely not? Surely it was a great British victory? Yes and no. One of the two victorious generals: the Duke of Wellington, was British. Kind of. He was, in fact, born in Dublin. However, as Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke) used to say: "Just because you were born in a stable, it does not mean you are a horse."

Wellington also said, famously, that Waterloo was a "damned near run thing". In other words, he nearly lost, and, according to many stubborn historians and war-gamers, he should have lost.He also said - or perhaps, in fact, never said - that Waterloo was "won on the playing fields of Eton".

In truth, it was largely won by Prussians, Hanoverians, Saxons, Dutch and Belgians. Although we Brits prefer not to dwell on it, these nations supplied around three-quarters of the 120,000 soldiers who defeated the Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo. In other words, Wellington, the archetypal British hero, led a kind of European Union, or European army, long before such ideas were spawned to enrage readers of the Daily Mail.

Of the 26 infantry brigades in Wellington's army of 70,000, only nine were British; of the 12 cavalry brigades, seven were British, and many of their regiments were German. Half the 29 batteries of guns were Hanoverian, Dutch or Belgian. None of these included the 53,000 Prussians who turned up eventually for the battle and swung it Wellington's way when the French were pushing for a late victory.

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the celebrated college near Windsor must have taken in a lot of foreign students. Eton brings us to Windsor. And Windsor to the castle, and the castle to the "Waterloo chamber", where President Jacques Chirac will be entertained by the Queen tomorrow night. Or rather, he won't be. The Palace will, tactfully, rename the Waterloo chamber as "the Music Room" for the evening.

In the "music room", M. Chirac will watch a special performance of Les Miserables, an English musical about France. The fact that M. Chirac was almost entertained by the Queen in a room called Waterloo, none the less drew a flurry of wry commentary in the French press and an outpouring of great ribaldry in the British press. After 189 years, Waterloo is still with us.

Waterloo is still with the French. They say, just as we do, that someone who has received a come-uppance has "met their Waterloo". The poet and novelist Victor Hugo - who also wrote the first version of "Les Mis" - wrote a poem about the battle, with the line "Waterloo, o morne plaine" (Waterloo, what a boring spot), which is still learnt by French schoolchildren.

But for the British, the battle remains, like the Armada, Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain, a living part of our self-identity: one of the occasions on which our island race defeated the would-be invader and won the right to remain British. The fact that the would-be invader was French makes the battle all the more memorable.

Here is a strange fact, though. Waterloo - fought 189 years ago last June - was the last time that we did fight the French, openly. In every large war since then, give or take a few skirmishes in Africa, we have fought alongside the French, who remain, none the less, our enemy of choice.

Waterloo marked the end of many things. First of all, it brought an end to 750 years of Anglo-French conflict, although you might not think so reading some of the headlines about President Chirac's visit this week. Secondly - and the second explains the first - Waterloo marks the end of a period of about 150 years in which France was Top Nation. From the late 17th century to the early 19th century, despite losing Canada and one or two other small things, France was Top Dog.

France was the most populous country in the western world (28,700,000 people, compared with 18,000,000 in Britain in 1800). In the 18th century, it provided the international language, the international standards in dress, the international culture and most of the new, abstract ideas. France was the United States of the day: the global reference, arrogant, aggressive, oblivious of other cultures.

Waterloo did not, strictly speaking, put an end to all that. France had, after all, lost many other battles, and even wars, in the past but had continued to be dominant, through both royalty and revolution.

Waterloo did, however, unquestionably mark the end of French ascendancy: an ascendancy which France has never recovered. Hence the continued French absorption with 1815.

If Napoleon had won, would things have been different, the French cannot help asking themselves. Would most of Europe, and the world, be French-speaking? Would British intellectuals be complaining about the ugly influence of globalised French culture and language? Would there be a victorhugoworld somewhere north of London? Would the croque monsieur have achieved the global domination of the hamburger?

Probably not. French ascendancy was already crumbling. Waterloo was a symptom of France's new fragility after a destructive revolution and 23 years of bloody wars. If Napoleon had not lost that battle he would probably have lost the next or the next. Russian and Austrian armies were also queuing to attack him. Arguably, Trafalgar, fought at the zenith of Napoleon's powers in 1805, was more significant; if the British fleet had lost that battle, there would have been little to prevent a French invasion of England and a crushing French domination of Europe.

More importantly, by 1815 France's underlying strength was waning. The French had plunged into a political revolution and missed out on the - ultimately far more significant - industrial revolution in Britain.

The historian Simon Schama, in his great book on the French revolution, Citizens, points out that the corrupt ancien régime, toppled by the revolution, was not so "ancien" as all that. It had already started to follow Britain down the route to factory-driven economic power. All of that was put on hold for nearly 30 years by the revolution. Even more importantly, by 1815 the sheer numbers of people in Britain and what was to become Germany were catching up with, and would eventually overtake, those in France.

Why this happened remains a subject of historical dispute but it appears that the French started practising contraception, mostly through coitus interruptus, long before the British and Germans. There was a critical period of 10 to 20 years, at the end of the 18th century, demographic historians say, when France's population growth faltered and Britain's and the future Germany's surged ahead. The French population grew in the 19th century but nowhere near as rapidly as the British, German and American populations.

If France had grown from 1800 onwards at the same rate as Germany and Britain, it would now have a population of more than 100,000,000, almost twice its actual population. Because of hundreds of thousands of private decisions made in thousands of bedrooms, or straw-lined attics, it does not.

After 1815 France would never again be top nation because it was no longer the biggest and wealthiest country and could no longer muster the most money and the biggest armies. That was nothing to do with Waterloo.

None of that, however, stops the French looking at Waterloo and wondering how things might have turned out if Napoleon had not, fatally, divided his armies; or if the old Prussian general, Blücher, had not arrived on the field of battle in late afternoon with 50,000 extra men (a bit like eight new players joining a football game on one side in the 75th minute).

Or what might have happened if Napoleon had made his orders clearer and Marshal Grouchy and his 30,000 troops had turned up for the battle rather than follow the late-arriving Prussians around like tourists? Or what might have been the outcome if Marshal Ney's troops, who overran the "British" guns on several occasions, had bothered to spike them rather than leave them politely intact? The battle was fought, let us recall, less than 100 days after Napoleon had escaped from the island of Elba, whence he had been banished after being comprehensively defeated in a string of battles in 1814. He was perhaps a little battle rusty; not match-fit. He made an unusual series of blunders at Waterloo.

On the other hand, his old invincibility had long gone. His early successes were based on brilliant generalship but also a new ruthless approach to warfare, which involved killing as many enemy troops as possible. By 1815, Napoleon's opponents had learnt to be as ruthless as the Emperor. Especially Wellington. He fought a brilliant defensive battle at Waterloo, packing his penalty area and winning on breakaways (although the influx of Prussian substitutes in the last quarter made the difference in the end).

After 1815, Britain became Top Nation for a century or so. Was that because of Waterloo? Hardly. If Wellington had lost, Britain would have been badly shaken but the population would have continued to grow and the Lancashire mills and Birmingham foundries would have continued to build the world's first industrial, and modern (for good or ill) society. If Wellington had lost, the British fleet would have still stood between Napoleon and an invasion of England.

Waterloo marks the beginning of a century of British ascendancy but it does not explain it, any more than it explains the French relative decline. None of that, however, stops the British looking at Waterloo and claiming the battle as one of the great building blocks of British history.

Wellington said the battle was won on the playing fields of Eton. He detested the new, industrial and falteringly democratic Britain of which he became, briefly, prime minister a few years later. None the less, the real Waterloo, the battle which established British economic and political dominance, was won by Spinning Jennies and Crompton's Mules in Lancashire cotton mills. For France, the real Waterloo, the population battle, was lost - irony of ironies - in the bedroom.


The main cultural event in the Belgian village of Waterloo last weekend was the Norwegian Christmas market next to McDonald's. The 19th-century hamlet may have lent its name to the battle that reshaped Europe, but it has done little to trade on the momentous events of its past.

The streets of Waterloo, 13 miles south of Brussels, are dotted with businesses that cater for the modest flow of tourists, but visitors might think that Waterloo is a battle that Waterloo the place would rather forget.

The Belle Alliance, the ancient inn where the two victorious generals, the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Field Marshal Blucher, met to seal their triumph, served until recently as an American-style bar and disco.

The centre of the Waterloo battlefield "industry" is a large mound topped with a bronze statue of a lion to the side of the village's busy main road. The mound was built five years after the battle and was until recently in danger of collapse.

But the villagers and the regional government have agreed a €30m (£21m) plan to transform Waterloo into a state-of-the-art visitor complex by 2008. It will create a new view of the battlefield by destroying a visitor centre and other buildings, and an underground museum will show a 3D video recreation of the battle.

Cahal Milmo