Two centuries ago next week, a rag-tag European army led by an Irish general defeated the French near a village south of Brussels. Next Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5,000 people will dress up in old uniforms to stage the most ambitious ever re-enactment of “The Battle That Changed History”.
There has been great excitement about the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo in Britain; much less so in France. The old enemies agree, nonetheless, in perpetuating myths about Waterloo (starting with the dubious proposition that the battle “changed history”).
Both countries persist in believing that Waterloo was a British – or even an “English” – victory. Both say that the battle brought to an end 150 years of French supremacy. Both believe that Waterloo made Britain, briefly, the western world’s “Top Nation”.
Waterloo conveniently marks the end of many things. It was the direct cause – properly speaking – of very few.
Myth 1. The British victory
The Duke of Wellington is alleged to have said that the battle was won on “the playing fields of Eton”. No, it was not – unless that school took a lot of foreign students. Many of the “British” soldiers at next week’s three-day “Waterloo 2” – as re-made for TV – will be Dutch or Belgians or Americans. Many of the “French” soldiers will be Scandinavian, Swiss, Russian or British.
In the case of the “British” army, this multi-national force of enthusiasts will be historically correct. On 18 June 1815, Wellington, born in Dublin of Irish ancestry, led a European army, long before such ideas enraged the readers of the Daily Express or Daily Mail.
More than half of Wellington’s own force consisted of Hannoverians, Saxons, Dutch and Belgians. About a quarter of the 120,000 soldiers who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo were “British” – and maybe one in eight were English.
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
1/10 Death of Sir Winston Churchill, 24 January 1965
This January will be 50 years since the death of Britain’s wartime prime minister, and one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Alongside defeating the Nazis, Churchill also enjoyed bricklaying, painting and Islamic culture. His death was followed by a state funeral, and thousands of people paying their respects along the route of the cortege to his burial site at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. You can visit the Cabinet War Rooms (020 7416 5000), London, and Churchill’s home, Chartwell (07132 868381), Kent, year-round.
2/10 Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815
No one can claim that nothing important happens in Belgium – this was the site of one of the most famous showdowns in European history. On one side were the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, self-declared Emperor of France, and on the other the coalition of nations led by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was decisive in curbing the territorial ambitions of the Napoleonic regime. Wellington Arch (020 7930 2726), London, will host an exhibition about the battle. Walmer Castle (01304 364288), Kent, will re-produce the rooms where Wellington spent his final days.
3/10 Signing of the Magna Carta, 15 June 1215
The signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runneymede, Surrey, may not be quite the defining event in the history of English liberty as it is sometimes presented. After all, John went on to ignore all of its demands. But the idea that it represented – the principle that kings, as well as subjects, are accountable to the law – is a cornerstone of our constitution. Take part in Magna Carta Trails at Dover Castle and Pevensey Castle. Copies of the document itself can be found at Salisbury Cathedral (01722 555120), Lincoln Castle (01522 782040 – closed until 1 April 2015), and the British Library (01937 546060)
4/10 Viking invasion of England by Cnut, 1015
“They miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church.” So Symeon, a monk from Durham, described a Viking raid on Lindisfarne. King Cnut was no doubt equally terrifying when he arrived in Wessex in 1015, but after pillaging he chose to settle. He brought an age of prosperity after a period of warfare between Vikings and Saxons, and established an empire that stretched from England to Scandinavia. Lindisfarne Priory (01289 330733), Northumberland, will host a ‘Vikings in Lindisfarne’ even on 18/19 July.
5/10 First English parliament, 20 January 1265
The story of England’s first parliament, much like today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, is one of squabbles, upheaval and violence. 750 years ago, Simon de Montford, in the midst of civil war against King Henry III, called together an elected body of representatives from across the country in what is thought to be the first meeting of ‘the commons’. You can visit Kenilworth Castle (0870 333 1181), Warwickshire, where the forces of Simon de Montford besieged the royalist garrison.
6/10 Siege of Carlisle, 1315
700 years ago, the northern edge of England was in constant terror of invasion from the Scots, who regularly came south under the command of fierce warlords. None were more feared than Robert the Bruce, who invaded England after his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Having marched into Cumbria, his forces laid siege to Carlisle Castle, in a brutal fight that saw ladders and siege towers used in a futile attempt to capture the fort. Carlisle Castle (01228598596) will host a siege re-enactment on 6/7 July.
7/10 Evacuation of Dunkirk, 27 May to 4 June 1940
It is the triumph that emerged out of disaster – the removal of Allied troops from the beaches of northern France spared thousands of lives and allowed Hitler’s enemies to keep on fighting. The evacuation, which took place 75 years ago, has entered folklore on account of the actions of the ‘little ships’, which rescued soldiers and helped prevent a catastrophic defeat. The Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle, from which the evacuation was coordinated, can be visited all year round. Dover Castle’s (01304 211067) “WWII Weekend” will take place over the late May Bank Holiday (24 May).
8/10 Agincourt, 15 October 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. Henry V’s speech in 1415, admittedly invented by Shakespeare, embodies the myth of Agincourt. The small number of English and Welsh archers, standing up against the masses of French knights. Despite being ripped off by generations of football managers hoping for an inspirational team talk, it still holds its power. Porchester Castle (023 92378291), Hampshire, will be holding an event to celebrate the anniversary of the battle in October. More details released at a later date.
9/10 First World War, 1915
The optimism of 1914 was tempered by the horrors of the following year, when troops settled in for a long slog of trench warfare along the Western Front. Key events which took place 100 years ago this year include the first recorded use of chlorine gas and the start of Zeppelin attacks on England. Meanwhile, Winston’s Churchill’s failed Gallipoli invasion forced him to depart from the Admiralty. Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, will host a “Wrest at War” weekend. Details released at a later date.
10/10 VE Day, 8 May 1945
Victory in Europe Day – a public holiday to mark the Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender – witnessed an outbreak of street parties across Britain. Huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear Churchill’s speech broadcast over a tannoy, with one eye-witness noting an “extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude”. Audley End (01799522842) will host a WWII weekend event over the August Bank Holiday. Details released at a later date.
Of the 32 infantry regiments in Wellington’s army of about 70,000, only 18 were British, of which seven were from Scotland. Modern historians estimate that one in three of the soldiers in the “English” regiments were from Ireland. Of the 12 cavalry brigades, seven were British and many of their regiments were German. Half the 29 batteries of guns were Hannoverian, Dutch or Belgian.
None of these numbers include the 53,000 Prussians who turned up eventually and swung the battle Wellington’s way, just when the French were pushing for a late victory.
Colin Brown, author of The Scum of the Earth, one of the most interesting of the crop of bicentenary books about Waterloo, writes: “Victorian jingoism fuelled one of the most persistent myths about Waterloo: that it was a British – or even more inaccurately, an English victory.” This re-imagined battle has helped to create, he suggests, the self-image of “plucky little Albion” which shapes British attitudes towards the EU to this day.
Myth 2. Waterloo changed history
Waterloo genuinely was significant. It marked the end of 750 years of intermittent Anglo-French conflict. The two nations have not fought each other since (give or take a few skirmishes in Africa and the Middle East). The 1,000-year war continues but only in French-bashing tabloid headlines, or in French-teasing books by Stephen Clarke.
Waterloo roughly marks the point when French domination of the western world ended and a century or so of British supremacy began. Hence, in part, France’s unwillingness to send a senior representative to next week’s festivities.
It should be remembered, however, that in 2005 France refused to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s greatest victory. The French are still unable to decide whether Napoleon, though he might have been a Great Man, was, fundamentally, a Good Thing.
Did the Emperor’s defeat at Waterloo destroy the French supremacy which began in the mid-1600’s? Not really. Until the early 19th century, France was the wealthiest and most populous country in the western world (28 million people compared to 18 million in Britain in 1800). In the 18th century, it had provided the international language, the international dress standards, the international culture and most of the new, abstract ideas.
France was the United States of the day: the global reference point, arrogant, aggressive, oblivious. During that time, France lost battles, and even wars, to the British and others, but its supremacy continued. Arguably, Trafalgar, fought at the zenith of Napoleon’s powers in 1805, was more significant than Waterloo. If the British fleet had lost that battle, there would have been little to prevent a French invasion of England and a prolonged domination of Europe.
By 1815, this French ascendency was crumbling. The loss at Waterloo was a symptom of France’s fragility after a destructive revolution and 23 years of bloody wars. If Napoleon had won, he would probably have lost the next battle. Russian and Austrian armies were queuing to fight him. Equally, by 1815, British economic strength was becoming irresistible. Between 1780 and 1820, industrial output doubled. Britain did not send many of its own soldiers to fight Napoleon (they were fighting the Americans) but its wealth subsidised, or bought, the other “allied” armies.
The French economy meanwhile was losing ground. The historian Simon Schama in his book on the French revolution, Citizens, points out that the Ancien Régime was not so “ancient”. Before 1789, the French monarchy had started to follow Britain down the route to factory-driven economic power. That progress was frozen for nearly 30 years by the Revolution which, according to stubborn French historians, invented Modern Times.
Just as importantly, by 1815 the number of people in Britain and the future Germany was catching up with France. The French started practising contraception, mostly through coitus interruptus, 20 years or so before the British and Germans did. At the same time, the survival rate of infants in all European countries improved dramatically.
There was a critical period of two decades at the end of the 18th century when the French population grew slowly but Britain’s surged. This relative baby bust was enough to put the trajectory of French demography onto a lower course than Britain or Germany (or later the US). If France had grown from 1780 onwards at the same rate as Germany and Britain, it would have a population of more than 100 million today.
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.
Britain did briefly become Top Nation – but it was never a military power. Its strengths were those of a new industrial and global trading world and a booming population. That was nothing to do with Waterloo.
If Wellington had lost, Britain would have been shaken but the population would have continued to grow. The Lancashire cotton mills and Birmingham metal foundries would have continued to build the world’s first industrial (for good or ill) society.
If Wellington had lost, the British fleet would have still stood between Napoleon and an invasion of England.
The “real Waterloo”, the battle which established British economic and political dominance in the 19th century, was won in Lancashire’s cotton mills.
For France, the “real Waterloo”, the population and economic battle, was lost on the barricades and – irony of ironies – in the marital bed.