A big thank you to Alan Mason for his thoughts on the battle of Waterloo.
This week, on 18 June, we are remembering the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (painting above) when the Allies, (British, Dutch, and Germans), defeated the French in Belgium. The worst aspect of this horrific short campaign, in which three battles were fought, and 38, 000 – 40, 000 men were killed and seriously injured, was that it was completely un-necessary.
Despite all Napoleon’s victories and his invasions of many other countries, the war was finally brought home to France itself in early 1814, when the European Allies (Germans, Austrians, Russians and Belgians) invaded the eastern border, and the British invaded the southern border from Spain, following the Duke of Wellington’s successful campaign to free the Spanish from French occupation.
The Allies entered Paris unopposed on 31 March 1814 and the French Marshals (most senior army officers) compelled Napoleon to abdicate (2) on the 4 April. This was the moment when the Allies could have arrested him and executed him to prevent him ever making war again. However, he was allowed to keep his hollow title as Emperor, and sent into easy exile with a large retinue, on the small Mediterranean island of Elba (3), off the west coast of northern Italy, and only 170 miles (272 Km) from the south coast of France
A Popular Call for Napoleon’s Execution
This is not just a convenient comment from a twentieth-century Englishman being wise after the event. The execution of Napoleon was called for at the time by a variety of statesmen from the countries he had plundered and destroyed, most notably the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher, the real hero of Waterloo. Many in Britain, taxed to the hilt to pay for the wars, wanted him dead. Napoleon was a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians, and for reducing many others to beggary and starvation. The painting by Goya (4) reflects the horror and misery of the French occupation of Spain, and the reprisals taken against the civilian population by Napoleon’s General Murat.
Napoleon was good at three things; waging war, winning battles, and stealing treasure from those he conquered. He was born Napoleone Buonaparte, on the French island of Corsica, only a few years after it became part of France. Like Adolf Hitler, he came from the outer fringes of the nation he came to dominate. While Buonaparte was a Corsican, Hitler was an Austrian, and both men were a source of private amusement for the professional and military classes they met, because they spoke their languages with such strong foreign accents.
Buonaparte was also like a typical Mafiosi boss from Sicily, a great thief, giving his own relatives (5, 6, 7) grandiose titles, fancy uniforms, and positions of wealth, power and responsibility over conquered nations. If he had not been stopped, the whole of Europe would have been governed by members of this odious clan.
Monarchy, Republic or Empire
The strange French obsession with Napoleon remains to this day, despite the fact that France had a Revolution in 1789 to sweep away an absolute monarchy, and a tax-privileged aristocracy, to replace it with a new democratic Republic, based on “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood”. Within a mere seven years, Napoleon had brought back monarchy again, not in the form of the old Kings of France, but in his own person, not as a mere King, but now as an Emperor, far more absolute than what went before.
A Threat to the Peace of Europe
Napoleon used his political power to wage war widely across western and central Europe even as far away as Moscow in the heart of Tsarist Russia. He was seen by other nations as a continual threat to the peace of Europe. He was a dangerous psychopath, able to inspire or frighten others into doing his will. It is no surprise that some modern psychopaths think they are Napoleon – they instantly recognise the type. It is sometimes said that Napoleon, unlike Hitler, was no racist, which may be true, but hardly justifies the un-necessary deaths of thousands of soldiers and the suffering and death of millions of innocent civilians.
Pawns on a Chessboard
It needs to be said that although Napoleon was idolised by his troops, as “Le Petit Caporal” (the little Corporal) he treated them very badly. In Napoleon’s disastrous campaign of 1812, in which Moscow was captured and burned, the French army finally had to retreat westwards through the snows while attacked by Russian Cossack cavalry. Of the six hundred thousand French soldiers who went into Russia, only twenty thousand came out again. Did the “little Corporal” share his men’s suffering? Well, no he didn’t actually, despite romantic paintings (8), he left post-haste to get back to Paris before he was supplanted by some other self-appointed Emperor. His whole treatment of his soldiery is of a piece with his psychopathic attitudes to humanity; they were little more than insect life or pawns on a chessboard.
What would be the response of a normal human being to the thought, “I have been responsible for the deaths of half a million of my fellow-countrymen?” Most people would see it as a terrible burden to be carried for the rest of their lives. But Napoleon was not a normal human being; he was a criminal psychopath and his response was, “I must conscript more men, and children, if necessary, to be my soldiers, to further my plans.”
Why No Execution?
Given the danger that Napoleon posed to the peace of Europe, why on earth did the statesmen of the time hold back on executing him? Were they dazzled by the glamour of his fake nobility and assumed kingship? Did they think the French would be so incensed they would begin another war to avenge him? There were as many arguments against making away with him as there were for an execution. To quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth on the killing of the Scottish King Duncan, “If it were done, it were best done quickly.”
Had Napoleon been killed in 1814 there would have been none of the romantic headlines that were to follow next year. No, “Flight from Elba”, no “Route Napoleon” (from the south coast of France to Paris), no “Hundred Days” (of political office), and no “Waterloo Campaign. By their failure to deal with Napoleon, the European statesmen condemned to death many men who otherwise would have survived the year 1815.
One of the saddest acts of the psychopath Napoleon was to recruit the “Marie Louises”. France had been so deprived of adult men for military conscription to die in Napoleon’s wars, that they began to recruit children, boys of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, who were just about able to shoulder a musket. Marie Louise of Austria, (9), the second wife of Napoleon, had lent her name to this tragic gamble.
The Waterloo Campaign
What is often forgotten is that the Waterloo campaign consisted of three battles (10), Quatre Bras (the French beat the British), Ligny (the French beat the Prussians) and Waterloo (the Allies beat the French). The two earlier battles were hard-fought and these deaths added to the total of this un-necessary campaign. Without describing the Battle of Waterloo in detail, the picture is relatively simple; the Duke of Wellington stood on the defensive, on a low ridge which helped to protect some of his troops from the French artillery, while he waited for the Prussian forces to come to join him.
The Prussian commander, Field Marshal Blücher (11) had promised the Duke that he would join him on the Waterloo ridge. Bearing in mind that he was seventy-two, and had been thrown off his horse by an exploding shell, and trapped under the animal’s body for several hours, during the Battle of Ligny, and his army had been badly mauled, it was remarkable that he felt able to fulfil his promise. Many of his senior officers were reluctant to agree with him, but fortunately, Blücher’s strategic grasp was superior to theirs. The battle began around eleven in the morning, and there was heavy fighting to hold or capture the various stone farmhouse buildings (12) which acted as strongpoints for the battlefield.
The strength of these buildings is amply demonstrated in the still (12) from the 1970 release of the Dino de Laurentis production of the film, “Waterloo”, starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte, and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington
Around one o’ clock the Prussians began to arrive on the ridge to the north of the battlefield, and the French saw their numbers grow steadily. It became clear that the French would have to defeat the combined Allied forces, rather than the British alone. In the end, a general advance drove the French including Napoleon into flight. Had Blücher failed to support Wellington it is clear the French would have won the battle.
The Duke himself described the battle as “a damned close-run thing” because his forces had just clung on by their fingertips, until timely help arrived with the Prussians. Wellington’s policy, of standing on the defensive, was in large part dictated by the fact that he had a mixed bag of British, Dutch, Belgian and Hanoverian (German) troops. He could not guarantee their steadiness in the battle, and kept them on the ridge, while the heaviest fighting for the stone buildings was done by the more experienced British troops. He described his Allied troops as, “an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, with a very inexperienced staff”.
Napoleon on St Helena
Even after the bloodletting of the Waterloo campaign, the politicians of the time failed to take action to execute Napoleon. He had wisely surrendered himself to the British authorities, and despite the fact that he had been condemned by a tribunal of representatives of all the European leaders; the British resisted the idea of his execution. Perhaps if Britain had been invaded and plundered by Napoleon, like all the continental nations, the British would not have been quite so lenient.
This time, instead of exiling him to an island just a stone’s throw from France, they sent him to St Helena, (13) a remote volcanic island, ten miles long and six miles wide, (16 X 9 Km) in the South Atlantic Ocean , 1,200 miles (1,820 Km ) from Africa, and 1,800 miles (2,880 Km ) from the Americas.
He lived there in comfort (14) with a retinue of servants and former colleagues. Even here, one would have thought he was a risk to peace. A specially charted ship, with cannons, and two hundred armed men could have rescued him, and returned him to Europe to begin his psychopathic activities all over again.
Napoleon Returns to France
He died on St Helena in 1825, and he was buried there. The British permitted his remains to be returned to France in 1840. Here the preposterous Napoleonic nonsense began again. He was interred in six nested coffins, one inside the other, and finally, a red-purple porphyritic tomb (15), like a Roman Emperor. The tomb is in the museum, “Les Invalides” a former hospital for wounded soldiers – literally “the invalids”. The French public, together with millions of visitors each year, can stand in awe of one of Europe’s most successful war criminals.
A Second Napoleonic Empire
Only eight years later, Napoleon’s nephew, Louis (16), attained power, when the French people foolishly elected him President of the Republic. This happened presumably because the people were so dazzled by the glamour of this close relative of the first Napoleon. By 1852, he had declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. Fortunately for Europe, he was no military genius, and although an authoritarian dictator, neither was he a criminal psychopath. His “Second Empire” collapsed less than twenty years later, in 1870, after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the capture of Napoleon III at the battle of Sedan.
The Napoleonic Legacy in France
What of Napoleon’s legacy today, two hundred years after his final defeat at Waterloo? At this time of recollection, the French and British historian apologists for Napoleon are emerging from the undergrowth. The BBC is running a series of lectures on radio and TV with the general theme, “He has been misjudged: he really wasn’t so bad.” It is perfectly true that Napoleon was a patron of the arts and of science, as well as streamlining the legal system of France, but one is entitled to ask, “Was this really for the benefit of humanity, or rather because a more efficient French state could wage war more effectively?”
The metric system of weights and measures was devised by Napoleon’s scientists and mathematicians, and was imposed on Europe as a result of his wars of conquest. Only Britain escaped the system and grudgingly accepted it over 150 years later. Napoleon also had his lawyers draw up a new legal code and system of national democracy. It is this “Code Napoleon” which is the basis of the modern French state and the European Union (17).
The European Economic Community
In the period following the end of WW2, a group of continental European politicians were busy drawing up plans for a new organisation. It was to be an area of free trade where tariffs and artificial barriers to commerce were swept away. The clue was in the name, “The European Economic Community”. Although at the time, in the nineteen fifties, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had spoken warmly and encouragingly of this project, the British foolishly stood aside and allowed the planning to go ahead without them. It may well have been that Churchill, who was now old and tired, could not face the idea of protracted negotiations.
The result was that France became the senior partner in the planning with Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany. Although Germany was a rising economic power she had to defer to French wishes, because of her recent political history. As one commentator acidly observed, “It was the price Germany paid for being allowed back into the human race.”
The consequence of this French domination was that the new organisation (18) was based on a Napoleonic model. There was to be a large and expensive bureaucracy, and power lay within the hands of a small elite Council of Ministers. Eventually, Britain made attempts to join this club, but were prevented by the French President, Charles de Gaulle (19), who feared that Britain, with American backing, would try to change the Napoleonic model for something more “Anglo-Saxon”. De Gaulle’s fears were well-founded.
Britain Enters the Napoleonic Club
Eventually, in 1973, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath (20), negotiated Britain’s entry into the EEC or Common Market as it was then called, under greatly disadvantageous terms. He had failed to solve Britain’s economic woes politically, and thought that membership of the EEC was the only solution, and consequently would accept entry at any price.
What is not realised by the British public, at this distance in time, is that there was no referendum on surrendering our national sovereignty to this supra-national body. Heath took the simplistic view that he had recently won a General Election, and that was mandate enough. He had also deceived the people of Britain in presenting this change as a mere economic arrangement. He kept very quiet at the time, concerning the political importance of, “an ever-closer union” which was not what the great majority of British people wanted. His election poster (20) was ironic; there was to be “a better tomorrow” but not under Edward Heath.
The European Union
The original EEC transmuted itself into the European Union, a close political affiliation, rather than a mere economic co-operative. It gradually became apparent that this Napoleonic system ran counter to Britain’s traditions and political instincts; it was essentially undemocratic.
(i) There was a European Parliament, but it was largely powerless, and could not hold Ministers to account. It was little more than a talking-shop. This is in contrast to Britain where Parliament was the seat of power.
(ii) In Britain, Ministers make policy decisions and Civil Servants carry them out. If the policies fail the Ministers are sacked, either by their party or by the electorate. In the European Union unelected Civil Servants make policy decisions and cannot be removed.
(iii) Real power lies with the Council of Ministers, which constitutes a political elite. True that each of them has been elected to a national Parliament, but after that they are appointed to the Council. In Britain, if a Cabinet of Ministers loses the confidence of the nation, they can all be thrown out of office at a general election. That never happens to the European Council of Ministers, so they are insulated from political realities. True, some of them resign or are replaced, but not as a result of political accountability.
(iv) The EU has a large and expensively-paid and pensioned bureaucracy. This inevitably leads to inefficiency and corruption. The fact that the accounts of the EU have not been properly audited and signed off by a reputable firm of accountants for twenty years or more, speaks for itself. A bureaucracy has to find things to do, to occupy the time. What Civil Servants do best is to invent regulations. They are no good at running things themselves, but they can get in the way of people who are able to run things.
One of the later developments was the invention of a flag (21) which is supposed to take precedence over mere national flags on public occasions, and a national anthem, “The Ode to Joy” for which everyone is expected to stand. These are all the trappings of a nation-state, although this is strenuously denied. The American saw comes to mind; “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.”
Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s “Rebate”
Britain was saddled with a major drawback as a result of Edward Heath’s incompetent negotiations on EEC entry; we were a “net contributor” to the EEC budget. In plain English this means, “we put in a great deal more money than we get out”. It will come as no surprise to the cynics among us, that for the whole of the existence of the EEC/EU, France has been a “net beneficiary”, or “They get out a great deal more money than they put in”.
One of the great successes of the British government, under Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was to correct this discrepancy by negotiating a “rebate” in the 1980s. This was grudgingly given and it has been a constant running battle to keep it ever since. Again, put into plain English this means, “We continentals want the British to pay out more than they receive.” A part of this “rebate” was foolishly given away by Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for no very good reason other than “a gesture of good will.” For a man so dedicated to making money and enriching himself, he was remarkably casual with other people’s money.
A further effect of the Thatcher governments, was to completely turn around the British economy, in a way which previous Labour and Tory governments had failed to do in the three decades since the end of WW2. By the early twenty-first century it became clear that it was the European Union which was struggling economically with a burden of bureaucracy and restrictions, while Britain was, by contrast, flourishing commercially. The supreme irony was of French businesses, relocating conveniently across the Channel, because of the greater freedom from red tape in Britain. Our link with Europe has been brutally described as, “shackling ourselves to a corpse.”
Reforming the European Union?
What chance is there of reforming the Napoleonic ideology and structure of the European Union? Precious little; it is like the metaphorical ocean tanker, too big and heavy to turn around easily or quickly. The final word on Napoleon and Waterloo is left to the British artist and political cartoonist, George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878).
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of a number of reference works to check dates and factual details, but the opinions expressed are my own.
A. “An Introduction to English History” by G W Southgate, Volume III, Dent, 1952
B. “The Life and Times of Napoleon”, editor Enzo Orlandi, Hamlyn, 1968
C. The Faber Atlas, editor E J Sinclair, Geo, 1961
D. “The Field of Waterloo” by Paul Davies, Pan, 1970
E. “The Fall of Paris” by Alexander Horne, Macmillan, 1965
1. “Waterloo” a detail from a painting by the artist William Sadler (wikipedia)
2. Detail of a painting by the French artist, Horace Vernet, “The Farewell of Fontainebleau” when the Emperor says goodbye to his few remaining troops after his abdication from power (References B)
3. The position of the island of Elba, relative to France, within the modern nation-states of the region (Author, and References C)
4. “The Second of May” by Francisco Goya, 1808 (References B)
5. Louis Napoleon, King of the Netherlands (References B)
6. Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia (References B)
7. Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain (References B)
8. An idealised view of the Retreat from Moscow (wikipedia)
9. Empress Marie Louise (from a painting by Lefevre, wikipedia)
10. Battles of Quatre Bras, Ligny and Waterloo (Author)
11. Gebhard von Blucher, 1742 – 1819 (wikipedia)
12. French attack on the farm of Hougoumont, held by the British (still from de Laurentis film) (References D)
13. Jamestown, capital of the island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean (wikipedia)
14. Napoleon’s residence on St Helena, Longwood House (wikipedia)
15. Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides, Paris (wikipedia)
16. Napoleon III in 1871 after his defeat (References E)
17. The French Senate in the Palais Luxembourg (google)
18. The flags of the European Economic Community (google)
19. French President, Charles de Gaulle (google)
20. Edward Heath, Prime Minister of Britain from 1970 – 1974 (google)
21. The flag of the European Union (google)
22. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain 1979 – 1990 (google)
23. “Old Blucher beating the Corsican big drum” by George Cruikshank after the Waterloo battle (wikipedia)