"a damn close-run thing." On the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo

18 June 1815, The Battle of Waterloo was fought 9 miles south of Brussels in present-day Belgium, ending the Age of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars.

“Every one is aware that the variously inclined undulations of the plains, where the engagement between Napoleon and Wellington took place, are no longer what they were on 18 June 1815. By taking from this mournful field the wherewithal to make a monument to it, its real relief has been taken away, and history, disconcerted, no longer finds her bearings there. It has been disfigured for the sake of glorifying it. Wellington, when he beheld Waterloo once more, two years later, exclaimed, "They have altered my field of battle!" Where the great pyramid of earth, surmounted by the lion, rises to-day, there was a hillock which descended in an easy slope towards the Nivelles road, but which was almost an escarpment on the side of the highway to Genappe. The elevation of this escarpment can still be measured by the height of the two knolls of the two great sepulchres which enclose the road from Genappe to Brussels: one, the English tomb, is on the left; the other, the German tomb, is on the right. There is no French tomb. The whole of that plain is a sepulchre for France.“ (Victor Hugo “Les Misérables”)

Arguably the most quoted painting of the Battle of Waterloo, Lady Butler’s vivid imagination of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys, “Scotland Forever!” from 1881

It was an unpopular campaign. The tiger had broken out of his den, fair enough, but the great and good of Britain were just in the middle of breathing easily after twenty years of almost continuous warfare, business was going tolerably well, they were free to enjoy the sights, the air and the waters of the continent again, god was in his heaven and all was right with the world. And now this. Almost the whole nation was unwittingly quoting Goethe, asking themselves and their government why they should care when down in Turkey, far away, The foreign people are a-fighting. Or in the Low Countries for that matter. The government was at odds, some feared the horrendous cost of a new war and some a revolution on their very own doorsteps with riots already having broken out over various legislations that ensured the tolerably well going business but broke the common people’s back like the infamous Corn Law. However, the former allies were agreed and despite Napoleon’s efforts to keep the peace, in May 1815, the armies of the Seventh Coalition, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain along with the smaller nations were on the
march. Unfortunately, the only troops available on the spot as of yet were an allied contingent of British, Dutch, Belgians and Germans under Wellington in Brussels, supplied from Ostend, and Blücher’s Prussians near Namur, with lines of communications running east via Liège to the German states. Napoleon marched his 125,000 men of the Army of the North fast into Belgium, intending to drive a wedge between Blücher’s 120,000 and Wellington’s 95,000 men, assuming they would sidestep and protect their supply lines instead of forming a united front against him and he would beat one after the other, starting with the Prussians. On June 15th, Napoleon crossed the frontier into Belgium at Charleroi, while the “the most famous ball in history” was celebrated in a converted coach house in Brussels by the Duchess of Richmond with almost the entire allied body of officers present in “that high hall”. The affair ended rather abruptly when the news arrived in the middle of the night and Wellington cursed, Napoleon had humbugged him and “by God; he has gained twenty-four hours.“ At daybreak, the emperor’s plans would enfold, with Ney securing the crossroads at Quatre Bras and keeping the allies at a distance and Grouchy defeating Blücher at Ligny. And then Ney blundered and things began to go pear-shaped for Napoleon.

The “the most famous ball in history” on June 15th in Brussels
as imagined by Robert Alexander Hillingford in 1870

There is probably no other place on Earth that holds more myths and “what ifs” for a single day event than the ridge south of Mont-Saint-Jean and the morne plaine below. Especially Napoleon himself certainly went through all the “what ifs” day after day on St Helena. What if Ney’d had acted more decisively at Quatre Bras or, at least, had supported Grouchy at Ligny to take out Blücher for good? What if he himself hadn’t lagged on June 17th and went round Wellington’s flank when he still had the time? What if the rain hadn’t fallen in torrents in the night before the battle? What if he would not have let two hours pass to wait for the battlefield to dry up at least a bit? What if he wouldn’t have completely underestimated Old Nosey and his ragtag army of Dutch, Belgians, various Germans, Scottish and probably more Irish than English Redcoats. What if. At the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean, henceforth be remembered as Waterloo, a village to the North that is easier pronounced in the English-speaking world or “Belle Alliance” among the Prussians after the pub where her had his headquarters during the battle, Napoleon certainly was not at his tactical best and trying to decide the day with a few hammerblows against the allied line and march on the Brussels was rather uninspired. It was still, however, “a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there”, like Wellington felt compelled to remark along with a lot of other memorable quotes afterwards. With the sheer tenacity of the allies holding at Hougoumont and on the ridge in their squares, during the defence of La Haye Sainte and with the last minute arrival of Blücher and his Prussians on the field, the day was lost for Napoleon, along with his pride when Detmer’s Dutchmen and Maitland’s Foot Guards broke his Old Guard and his pride when he finally had to leg it. Literally.

Clément-Auguste Andrieux (1829–1880): "La bataille de Waterloo. 18 juin 1815" (1852)

“Merde”, wounded General Cambronne allegedly answered Maitland when he asked the Old Guard to surrender. Whether yet another a myth or not, the general’s statement adequately summed up the situation Napoleon was in after the battle. When the allies finally followed up him down to Paris, he even had a numerically superiority in troops stationed there, but they would not fight. The emperor fled for the coast and finally surrendered himself to another Maitland, captain of a British ship-of-the-line, off Rochefort in July. If he’d become the first man in the world and we’d all speak French today had he won at Waterloo is another of the “what ifs” and myths of the day at Mont-Saint-Jean. In all probability the answer is no. As matters lay, the world tried to return to a pre-revolutionary state after Napoleon’s final defeat, to the great dismay of most Europeans, national minorities as well as the working classes in the domains of the empires labelled “the Powers”. 15 Years later, the 19th century was about to be an age of revolutions again. Back home in England, Wellington became Prime Minister and Prinny King George IV and most of the veterans of Waterloo either had to beg for a living or were used to keep their own folks in line, like a year later against the 60 – 80.000 people assembled on St Petersfield in Manchester, who demonstrated again against the Corn Laws and demanded a reform of parliamentary representation. The event caused the death of 15 and at least 400 men, women and children wounded, an event later known as the “Peterloo Massacre” in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo. The “Iron Duke” himself finally gained his famous nom de guerre for armouring the ground floor windows of Apsley House against rioters’ missiles after his rejection of the Reform Bill in 1832 and not for his martial exploits.

George Cruikshank’s caricature of the 15th King’s Hussars, formerly the 15th King’s Light Dragoons, charging into the crowd at Peterloo in 1816

And more about the Battle of Waterloo on: