Why we should mourn Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo

Napoleon-Bonaparte-001Today, 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.”

 

 

 

38 comments on “Why we should mourn Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo

  1. Andy Newman on said:

    The opening chapters of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma capture the sense if excitement and enthusiasm across Europe for Napoleon at this time.

    I think John has a point here, especially as the immediate aftermath in Britain of this second defeat of Napoleon was a stamp down on all non conformity, which led to a number of leading non conformist protestants, for example, feeling obliged to publicalky attest to Anglicanism.

  2. John grimshaw on said:

    The victory of the Prussian and Allied forces at Waterloo and by extension the Russian and Austrian Empires was undoubtedly a victory for reaction. The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester comes to mind in the UK.

    I think Napoleon’s position in history is a little more complicated than John says in his short article. He was undoubtedly a great many of the things john says above, although by the time it came to flight from Elba and Waterloo a year later I think Napoleon’s genius was on the wane and had been since the ill fated march of the Grande Armee into Russia in 1812. If he had have stayed for the winter in Smolensk for example and resumed campaigning next spring the history of Europe afterwards might very well have been totally different. At waterloo a number of contemporaries noticed that his usual lightning decision making skills seemed to have left him and that indecision had crept in. A visionary maybe but Napoleon had also led his own reaction. He used his vast energy and skills to take advantage of the confusion created by the ultimate failure of the French Revolution to centralise more and more power in France around a cult of the individual. After he crowned himself Emperor in 1804 Beethoven famously refused to have nothing more to do with him. HIs Marshals who were famous for their spectacular uniforms (Napoleon himself dressed in a much more modest fashion) were also famous for their not being allowed to make any military decisions without their master first being consulted. Napoleon was not the ogre that inevitably he was made out to be by the victors and the Brits in particular, but he was no working class hero.

  3. John grimshaw: Napoleon was not the ogre that inevitably he was made out to be by the victors and the Brits in particular, but he was no working class hero.

    It would have been hard to be a working class hero during this period, given that the working class as a class ‘for itself’ would not appear in history until the Paris Commune of 1871. Napoleon existed at a time of great convulsion in the wake of a French Revolution that was in the process of devouring its own. He imposed stability on a society that was in the process of crumbling, and in the process salvaged the progressive aspects of the revolution within really existing paramaters of possibilism.

    In terms of his talent as a general and strategist, you’re quite right. The disaster of his Russian campaign punctured the myth of his invincibility, and at Waterloo he under performed, as did his key marshals, who failed to coordinate their efforst at key points during the battle. Strikingly, the French horse artillery and infantry failed to support the mass cavalry charge led by Ney, leaving them exposed to the withering musketry of the British squares and artillery after each charge failed to break them.

    Many historians also cite Napoleon’s decision to delay giving battle until the ground had dried, thus giving Blucher more time to reach the battle with his forces.

    I recently read Andrew Roberts’ ‘Napoleon the Great’, which I can recommend as a comprehensive examination of his life, achievements, successes and defeats.

  4. John Grimshaw on said:

    It would have been hard to be a working class hero during this period, given that the working class as a class ‘for itself’ would not appear in history until the Paris Commune of 1871.

    Well I was being a bit flippant John. However, whilst the Industrial Revolution had not really kicked of yet in France it certainly had done so in Britain (the Nation of Shopkeers) which was probably partly the reason why Britain was in a better financial position to grind out twenty years of war. Their certainly was a growing working class by 1848. Les Mis?

  5. Andy Newman on said:

    Btw, i really like this equestrian portrait by David, “Adam Ant crossing the Alps”

  6. George Hallam on said:

    John Grimshaw: However, whilst the Industrial Revolution had not really kicked of yet in France it certainly had done so in Britain (the Nation of Shopkeers) which was probably partly the reason why Britain was in a better financial position to grind out twenty years of war. Their certainly was a growing working class by 1848. Les Mis?

    Les Misérables is set between 1815 and the, comparatively obscure, rebellion in Paris of June1832.

  7. John on said:

    George Hallam: Les Misérables is set between 1815 and the, comparatively obscure, rebellion in Paris of June1832.

    It is and btw the treatment of Waterloo in the novel by Hugo is sublime. Worth reading just for those chapters alone.

  8. Graham on said:

    Good read. Saw a great quote from Napoleon in, Jonathan Freedland’s,Guardian article on Waterloo. He was asked what he would have done had he succeeded in landing troops in England. Napoleon responded by saying he would’ve marched immediately to London, abolished the bourbon monarchy,declared a republic and fought to enshrine the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity in British society.

  9. George Hallam on said:

    John Grimshaw: Thanks for this correction George. I don’t think it detracts however from my point.

    Your point was valid. Unfortunately, your reference to Les Misérables did take away/ divert attention/ detract from it.

  10. Vanya on said:

    #13 Not really.

    I saw the expression “by 1848” as algebraic, given that the uprising of 1832 was part of a revolutionary process that led to the events of 1848.

    For that reason I didn’t even realise that John had made a mistake and, more importantly, I agree with him that it didn’t detract from his point.

    Frequently precise details can be vitally important. However they are often exactly the opposite.

    Having said that John, please don’t spell it “their” when you mean “there” 🙂

  11. John grimshaw on said:

    Vanya,

    Thank you Vanya. But…heaven help me from pedants. As it happens a bit of casual research showed that Hugo was knocking around in 1848 and some of the characters in Les Miserables were based on real life people who also were involved in 1848.

  12. Vanya on said:

    #15 No worries John.

    As for what your research shows you, I suspected as much myself.

    Apparently there was an interestingly stupid comment recently on a BBC Look North programme btw to the effect that one of the results of the Battle of Waterloo was almost a century of peace in Europe.

    That’s the same BBC that recently broadcast a Danish drama about the wars between the German states and Denmark over Schleswig and Holstein culminating in the Prussian victory in 1864.

    Particularly ironic as the roots of the process of German national unification (of which the Danish war was an important stage) lay in part in the struggle against Napoleon.

  13. His defeat condemned Europe to another 100 years of monarchical rule, leading eventually to the millions killed in the First World War started by monarchs. Pity he wasn’t able to stick around longer. As his dear old mum, Letizia said, when congratulated on Napoleon’s glory, ‘So long as it lasts…..’ (She actually said in a thick Corsican accent ‘Pourvue que ca dure.’) Savvy lady.

  14. George Hallam on said:

    John grimshaw: heaven help me from pedants.

    Appeal to the Heavens if you like but it might be more effective to check your facts.

    You made a valid point but followed it up with an error. It was like hearing a clock strike thirteen; not only is this thirteenth strike itself discredited, but it casts doubt over the previous assertions. (Rex vs Haddock 1934? Court of Appeal ruling cited in Herbert, A. P. Uncommon Law: Being 66 Misleading Cases )

    Similarly, if I were to say, “They laugh at Beethoven when he said the world was round” it might jar a bit.
    http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ellafitzgerald/theyalllaughed.html

    On a lighter note here are some Biblical howlers:

    In the first book of the Bible, Guinessis, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked ‘Am I my brother’s son?’

    When Mary heard she was the mother of Jesus, she sang the ‘Magna Carta’.

    One of the oppossums was St. Matthew who was also a taximan.

    Solomom had three hundred wives and seven hundred porcupines.

    Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

    Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients. Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

    http://www.guy-sports.com/humor/jokes/jokes_school_howlers.htm

  15. Andy Newman on said:

    john problem: First World War started by monarchs

    I think this is unfair, in the case of the two Kaisers and the Csar, they were prisoners of events, and quite litterally excluded from the decision making processes by their chefs of staffs.

    The most bellicose country, and in my view the one who was most desperate to start a war was republican France in 1914

  16. George Hallam on said:

    Andy Newman: Andy Newman: I think this is unfair
    I wait to learn why I am wrong from George Hallam

    Andy NewmanQuote text Reply

    Naturally, I’m flattered by your interest in my opinion but I’ll have to disappoint you.

  17. Ian Cameron on said:

    Ah the blog’s having a kip … woops sorry I meant “nap” …. shush quiet please!

  18. Vanya on said:

    #25 Next George will be telling us that you can’t have an eleventy-first birthday. Well if it was good enough for Bilbo Baggins…

  19. John grimshaw on said:

    George Hallam: You made a valid point but followed it up with an error. It was like hearing a clock strike thirteen; not only is this thirteenth strike itself discredited, but it casts doubt over the previous assertions.

    “You see,” said Norrell grimly. “the spell will not allow us to move too far from each other. It has gripped me too. I dare say there was some regrettable impreciseness in the faeries magic. He has been careless. I daresay he named you as the English magician – or some such vague term. Consequently his spell – meant only for you – now entraps any English magician who stumbles into it!”

  20. Great to see this site covering the recent massive anti-austerity protests in such detail. Finger on the pulse and all that.

  21. Vanya on said:

    #28 I suspect that most of us were either on one of them and/or know at least 10 other people who were.

    I’m glad the demo in London was huge and I hope that the People’s Assembly develops into a mass movement as a result.

    I suspect in 2215 people won’t be discussing its historical significance.

  22. JOCK MCTROUSERS on said:

    Yes, I vote for Napoleon, warts and all. I think it would have been better for everyone (especially as noted the British people) if he had broken the power of the old regime for good. No 1 London – Wellington’s House at Marble Arch – is like a monument to serfdom; and then there’s that long, long wall with the barb wire on top at the other end of Hyde Park, the one that runs down to Victoria (Buckingham Palace)… all to remind us who owns this place. Better if they were gone, really.

  23. John grimshaw on said:

    Vanya,

    I was on the London demo with 4/5 mates and saw lots of people I know. The turn out was excellent and there were lots of new and young people there. It was I thought (from my point of view) a bit tame however. And certain unions had obviously pulled out the stops whereas others like UNISON clearly hadn’t bothered. Cameron et al can ignore demos like that as Blair did with the much more massive anti-war one in 2003. We need to do something more to get their attention.

  24. Ian Cameron on said:

    Ten days of napoleon-it-is. Rather unlike PARIS 1968! Lights out please gotta get more sleep.

  25. John Grimshaw on said:

    Ian Cameron,

    I’ll see you on Saturday in (bizarrely bloc C) with the South Welsh miners band (reformed) on Pride in London. Wakey wakey!

  26. Joseph,
    I surely hope that was an ironic statement. He got more than he asked for in the Invalides tomb under a golden dome.