Saturday, 6 June 2015

2015- 200 anniversaryof Waterloo 1815 the myth : would a French victory have changed history?

Before answering this question, let's look at what happened before.
When Napoleon invaded Russia, he indented to take Moscow which he presumed would have resulted in the surrender of the Tsar.

But for Tsar Alexander, Napoleon had become the Antichrist, and his divine mission  to defeat him.
The sac of Moscow didn't change the mind of Alexander, resulting into the catastrophic retreat of the French and allies.
The Tsar in his belief persuaded and pushed everyone into a anti-French coalition which ended into the campaign of 1814 and the fall of Paris.

With the common enemy gone, the negotiations afterwards turned into a hostile atmosphere.
Louis XVIII wasn't very popular and a major part of the population began to support a return of Napoleon.

Being married to the daughter of the Austrian Emperor,  and Austria at first being reluctant to join the Russian anti-Bonaparte coalition in 1812, Napoleon hoped  that with the negotiations  turning sour he could form an alliance, and return to power.  He made his move and returned to France.

But with their common enemy again on the field, the allies let go their quarrels and restored their coalition.  Tsar Alexander had no intention to drop his Divine goal to fight the anti-Christ.Also Napoleons wasn't the best  negotiator, almost all his victories ended with dictations.
He turned to the one thing he was good at. waging war.

However, he must have know his situation was hopeless.

Would Great-Britain be knocked out of the war with one big defeat? Don't think so, after 10 year of permanent war giving in after oone setback? Would the Dutch prefer a new French domination over Independence? No chance.
Did Prussia asked for peace after the defeat at Ligny? Of course not, they did receive several heavy blows in the 1814 campaign but had continued the war.
And above all, in the East, there was a massive force building up. 500.000 Russian, Austrians and other allies were gathering to start a new 1814 campaign.
As numbers do count, chances for Napoleon were zero.

let's also not forget the support he received from his coutnymen was also limited: the French were war-weary. Even berthier didn't return to service. He had to leave Davout, his best commander in Paris to cover his back, and kept turncoat Ney close.

So why is battle of Waterloo important? It certainly was the last battle of Napoleon, ending an era.  That is the big importance of the battle.

Did it change history? No, it shortened the  last convulsion of Bonaparte power. It can be compared to the battle of the Bulge in WWII. A desperate move with overoptimistic goals, but doomed to fail.
Of course, it also is the biggest battle the British fought against the french, and the only confrontation of Napoleon himself against a British dominated army.

In this Anlgo Saxon world,  the battle has received his mythical status. Made the Iron Duke the man who defeated Napoleon.  If one looks at the whole picture, one knows Tsar Alexander was Napoleons Nemesis.


  1. Hi Dirk,
    most likely your analysis is dramatically correct, but I like to think that a victory at Waterloo in the historic moment of the Congress of Vienna would make the difference. I only know that in the 70's, both in comics and in children's literature, I have discovered the figure of Napoleone and I immediately loved his time, fond of me in all the great battles, uniforms and the courage of those who seemed fight fdriven by the spirit of a great leader. It certainly is not an easy man to analyze, with many obscure points and many contradictions, but in fact Bonaparte is a myth to many that also coincides, in spite of himself, with the ideals of the French Revolution. As for me, thanks to the passion for the toy soldiers, this myth accompanies me now as when I was a child and perhaps for all my life. To go at Waterloo, in your Belgium, for the 200° anniversary of the battle is for me a great dream, and I am sorry because my mother is not live for tell her impressions of this trip, she was, many years ago, who told me the legend of Cambronne and the last squares of the French Guard and I will always be grateful for that.

  2. Well done Dirk! The history may not be changed but some influence on later wars, yes... And we are always talking about Waterloo. In fact we play soldier there. So, for reenactors........

  3. I am new to the "About Bonaparte" rules but not new to Napoleonic wargames or history. Your analysis of the myth of Waterloo is very thought provoking. I became fascinated by Waterloo when Life magazine published a special issue devoted to the battle on the 150th anniversary in 1965 when I was twelve years old. Admittedly, it was the usual Anglo-centric view of the battle. And I happily accepted it at face value. Five years of living in the UK and playing wargames there only added to my Anglo-centric view. So it is only this year that I have been reading other views of the battle and painting up Nassauers, Brunswickers and Dutch-Belgians for my Quatre Bras games. I tend to agree with you that the crowned heads of Europe would not have made peace with France as long as Napoleon was their ruler. I do think it a shame that the result of Napoleon's defeat was the re-imposition of pre-revolutionary conservative doctrine and nationalism which ultimately led to the Great War.

  4. Hi Nick, I agree that the ideas of the revolution were slowed down by the restoration, but concerning nationalism... well in my opinion, it was Napoleon who did spread the idea of nationalism. Untill the french revolutionary wars, armies were not inspired by nationalism, but were (more or less) profesional armies figthing for kings. The French patriotism inspired other nations, the Prussians, Russians , Poles, etc. turning into armies figthing for their country.The concept of national identity is a child of the revolution.

  5. Speaking of nationalism, I've always loved this quote from Tolstoy's "War and Peace" which I first read in an old set of Napoleonic rules. Warning: he's very tough on the Germans.
    A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German's self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth--science--which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.