Today, on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, we are given cause to mourn Napoleon’s defeat by the forces of reaction. This great soldier, statesman, and visionary gave us the first codified legal system – the Civil Code – under which civil and legal rights were enshrined as a right of citizenship rather than a privilege of wealth and power. He also reformed the French education system on a meritocratic basis, instituted huge public works programmes to improve roads, bridges, and infrastructure throughout France and Europe, ended the dispute with the Catholic Church in France with the signing of the Concordat (1801), and put extensive resources into scientific research.
The scourge of monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism, he went from being a Corsican artillery officer to the heights of glory and fame with his Grande Armee, achieving greatness over a period of two decades, during which he faced seven different military coalitions determined to crush it and the Enlightenment values its bayonets spread throughout Europe.
Napoleon’s strategy at Waterloo was typically audacious. Facing two armies under Wellington and Blucher, his plan involved marching between them and after first defeating Blucher’s Prussians, turn his attention to Wellington’s mixed force of British and allied troops with the objective of delivering it the crushing blow he intended would bring the crowns of Europe to the negotiating table to agree peace terms.
In exile on St Helena after his defeat, when asked what he would have done if his plan to invade Britain over a decade earlier had gone ahead and succeeded, Napoleon said: “I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”
As Victor Hugo writes in Les Miserables: “…it is beyond question that the victor at Waterloo, the power behind Wellington which brought to his aid every field marshal’s baton in Europe…this power was the counter revolution.”
This counter revolution of reaction had dire consequences for many of the victorious British troops who survived Waterloo, when they returned home to families and communities in which poverty and hunger were rife, and a country in which only two percent of the population had the vote. A global economic slump led directly to the passage of The Corn Laws, imposing tarriffs and restrictions on imported grain in order to keep the price of bread artificially high in the interests of British farmers. The impact on a working class already suffering huge deprivation as factories shut their doors and they were left destutute was elemental, resulting in riots in towns and cities across England, which the nobility, Wellington included, responded to with force. It culminated in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when a mass demonstration of 60,00 men, women, and children, gathered in St Peter’s Square, Manchester to protest their plight, was attacked by cavalry. Fifteen people were slaughtered, with dozens more injured, on a day that lives on as a reminder of brutality of a society in which the poor and working people were regarded as subhuman, and still are in many quarters of the Establishment.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo invites us to consider what might have been had the man known to history as ‘The Little Corporal’ vanquished the thrones of Europe that were arrayed against both him and the revolutionary ideas that threatened their existence.
“Death,” he reminds us, “is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”