This book takes an unusual approach to the battle of Waterloo, focusing on the long term impact of the battle on the nations that fought there, rather than on the details of the battle itself (although there is some discussion of relevant parts of the battle, in particular when looking at the battle for credit and blame).
The impact of the battle generally falls into two distinct categories. The first was the post-war battle for credit and blame, with those on the Allied side looking to claim as much credit as possible while the French, starting with Napoleon, attempted to find someone to pin the blame on. The second was the more long term image of the battle – as a great national triumph in Britain, an uneasy victory in the briefly united Kingdom of the Netherlands and as a national humiliation in France.
Three of the chapters focus on the impact in France, where the battle marked the final defeat of Napoleon and the end of a costly period of French military and political dominance. Waterloo was thus a difficult battle for the French to deal with. Almost as soon as the fighting ended the campaign to assign blame began, with Napoleon blaming Grouchy and just about anyone else rather than admit he had made any mistakes. There was also the problem of how to deal with a battle that had ended a period of French military glory, and apparently undone everything achieved since the Revolution. Here the case is made that it was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which transformed the public image of the battle.
I was surprised how controversial the battle was in Belgium, which was forced into a union with the Dutch in the post-war peace conferences. Waterloo was fought in the largely pro-French areas that eventually rebelled against the union and achieved independence as Belgium. There was even a move to dismantle the massive memorial that had been built in a failed attempt to unite the new kingdom.
In Britain the main battle was over the accuracy of Wellington’s own account of the fighting. Anyone who attacked this account while Wellington was still alive suffered an immediate backlash (including the British officer who was given the task of producing a massive model of climax of the battle, who got in trouble for accurately reflecting the Prussian contribution).
This is an interesting twist on Waterloo, and I found it an entertaining and often surprising book.
1 – Nationalism and Waterloo
2 – Napoleon’s Myth and Legend of Waterloo
3 – Grouchy and Waterloo
4 – Lessons from Waterloo – Military Theorists
5 – Victor Hugo’s Waterloo
6 – Imagining Waterloo
7 – Waterloo During Two World Wars and Beyond
Author: Timothy Fitzpatrick