Waterloo – and after: British are now rather embarrassed by military victory


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The Independent Online

The Battle of Waterloo was a decisive moment in European history and one of Britain’s greatest military victories (albeit with a fair bit of help from the Prussians). Yet 200 years on, the commemorations are relatively muted. That is partly just a consequence of the passage of time: the days of sabre-wielding cavalry and red-coated infantry seem impossibly remote. But it is also indicative of the fact that Britons are not – except when playing football against Germany – much given to tub-thumping over battlefield successes.

We celebrate the ends of conflicts; notably of the two world wars. But the overriding emotions on those occasions tend to be sorrow and relief. Patriotism provides the backdrop, but there is no jingoistic revelling in the success of British might.

Indeed, the military events that really seem to capture our imagination are the unmitigated disasters or, even better, the occasions when Britain found itself battling against the odds and was, if not exactly victorious, at least not defeated. Dunkirk is the classic example and is now almost synonymous with Britishness. The Battle of Britain, Trafalgar, even the Falklands War, fall into a similar category: victories, but very much defensive ones.

In essence, if we are going to commemorate war we like to do so without guilt. Seeing off potential invaders and being on the receiving end of almighty catastrophes can be remembered without complex debates about culpability. By contrast, we rarely celebrate Britain’s “successful” wars of colonial aggression. Our roles in the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan lead us to introspection, not pride.

Perhaps this is all to the good. For all its past expeditionary vim – perhaps, indeed, because of it – Britain is not a militaristic nation. It is notable that public anxiety about the current cuts to the defence budget seems relatively muted.

In France, there appears to be even less interest in commemorating Waterloo. But that may reflect the fact that, whereas Brits are wary of celebrating the victory, the French still haven’t accepted that Waterloo was a defeat.