Two hundred and two years ago today, on Sunday the 18th of June 1815, Britain emerged as the victor from what is, without doubt, the most significant battle in which she has played a defining part. Waterloo, forever remembered today through the medium of ABBA, and for Londoners by one of the most irritating train stations known to man. (Which came in useful when Churchill ensured that after the state funeral his coffin would leave for Oxfordshire via the station, thereby ensuring French President Charles de Gaulle would have to go to Waterloo.)
The Battle of Waterloo, put simply, had it all. There was high drama, immense courage and a colossal butcher’s bill to match its sheer scale. So many moments during the battle could have been the hinge between victory and defeat for either side. Without forgetting the remarkable underlying narrative of the greatest comeback fight in history, as Napoleon again attempted to subjugate Europe. The battle itself saw a titanic clash between the two greatest military minds of the day, coming head to head for the first time. Truly, it can be seen as the original ‘rumble in the jungle’ (the geographically accurate ‘rumble in Brabant’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). 

Nevertheless, even today the narrative of the battle is underlined by endless controversies. Fuelled primarily by the French inability to accept that Napoleon, a genius, but without doubt a tyrant whose evils have been conveniently forgotten, was bested by a hotch-potch of an army largely comprised of novices, and led by the Duke of Wellington, who, without question, bested the Emperor on the day. The idea and the persistence to over state the British role in this vital victory is root cause of the other controversy, in short who won. For Waterloo was also a battle which saw the significant late arrival of 50,000 Prussian troops to irrevocable swing the balance in Wellington’s favour. This has lead many to claim that Waterloo was ‘the German victory’.

This view has been championed by Peter Hofschroer, whose brilliant 1999 work outlines the massive contribution of the Prussians to the allied war effort on the three days leading up to and the days following Waterloo. He fails, however, to capture the true significance of the German contribution on that day. Namely those Germans in Wellington’s army, Hanoverians, Brunswickers, the King’s German Legion, which played a vital part at holding his line and repulsing the continuous French assault. The heroics of those men, in the face of the bloodiest eight hours many of them would ever know in their lives was remarkable. This is why it was Wellington and his army that could claim to be the primary victor of the day.

However, what can we learn today from a battle fought over two hundred years ago? What is the legacy of the battle, which still remains thrilling to uncover?

The first lesson is the need for international cooperation. This was crucial, not just to victory at Waterloo, but had underpinned British foreign policy since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By inviting William III and Mary II to claim the throne, Britain locked herself in a titanic battle for supremacy with France. Primarily European but increasingly global, this saw a new ‘hundred years war’ as we entered into protracted conflict – political, economic and military over conflicting direction. As France’s vision of a Europe and world under her authority verse Britain’s belief in a balanced Europe and enterprising partnership of nations was fought out. Ultimately, Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo was Britain’s final act to deprive France forever of the European hegemony she had enjoyed for so long.

Yet this was not achieved alone, but through the creation and preservation of alliances. We were chiefly aided by the German Protestant states, Prussia and Hannover being first among them (from Hannover we imported a Protestant monarchy to keep up the struggle). Our alliances were not confided to Protestantism though, with the Orthodox Russians and Catholic Austrians frequently brought into play. It was through careful management and constant aid that Britain was able to keep these allies in play and indeed our darkest moment in this struggle, when the American colonies were lost, was when we found ourselves pitched against much of Europe and desperately short of allies. Waterloo by contrast was the culmination of seven great coalitions constructed by the British to see off, first Revolutionary, then Napoleonic France. This effort in treasure, material and manpower sent one Prime Minister to the grave and a nation on the edge.  

The second lesson is that in order to shape events it is vital to be at the heart of them. Waterloo is the greatest victory in which British arms have been involved because it is one of the very few times when Britain was locked into a land struggle in the primary theatre of a war. Only the western front in the First World War comes close to the same kind of popular recognition. (The others, Wars of the Spanish and the Austrian Succession, are forgotten.) This military primacy allowed her to emerge, with a health dose of propaganda, as the undisputed – if not sole – victor, and play a vital part in the sharping of events thereafter. After nearly one hundred and thirty years of periodic warfare between Britain and France, it took a British force, defeating the French Emperor in the field, to end the military and inaugurate one hundred years of peaceful competition The symbolism of this should not be understated or forgotten. Little is achieved from the side lines. While we rightly venerate Nelson and his brilliant naval victories, it was Wellington and his army which finally defeated Napoleonic France ten years later.

The third and final point is of the need for refined and clear objectives. Going back to the arrival of William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution, their peaceful victory over James II heralded a new, ambitious Britain. The Williamite then Hanoverian state sealed and safeguarded the Union, laid the foundations for empire and opened the door for an entrepreneurial free trading nation of commerce. As Napoleon disparaged us; ‘an island of shopkeepers’. This desire to lead in the world and have a large share of trade, resulting in a more prosperous, innovative nation are a far cry from where we find ourselves today.

It is good as significant anniversaries pass, especially those which mark the onset of the Pax Britannica to reflect on the inspiring single minded and focused Britain which got us there. We must seek to emulate their ambition, though without using the same methods, as we set out on our greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Written by Henry Greenwell