British Soldiers Played Lesser Role Than Most Think
This is a week of anniversaries, Buzzkillers, especially in England. Monday was the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and today, June 18th, is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated by British and allied forces under the Duke of Wellington.
Like Magna Carta, this anniversary will be trumpeted throughout Britain and in some other countries as a great victory over a French tyrant bent on European domination. The myths about Waterloo, not surprisingly, are pretty entrenched, and they are repeated as fact as often as the myth of Magna Carta being the foundation of democracy.
We’re going to attack two of those myths on this Pre-Dawn Raid.
The first is that it was a “British” victory by “British” soldiers. This myth sprang up in the later 19th century in overblown Victorian history books (especially those written for children). Victorians were good at this, and if they had been more analytical and balanced in writing their histories, I’d be out of a job, Buzzkillers.
Nearly three-quarters of Wellington’s force were continental European soldiers. They were Hannoverians, Saxons, Dutch, Belgians, not to mention the Prussian army under General Blucher that tipped the balance in favor of allied forces just in time. Taken in total, British soldiers made up about 15% of the total victorious force.
Wellington, being no dummy, knew this and never boasted about Waterloo as a purely British victory. And, no, he never said that the battle was won “on the playing fields of Eton,” meaning that English public school bravery in sport transferred over to military bravery and victory in battle. That misquote was invented in the later 19th century, after Wellington had died.
The second myth is that Waterloo was a history-changing battle. It ended French domination of Europe and marked the beginning of 19th century British domination of the world. Nope.
Well into the 19th century, Buzzkillers, France had the largest army in the world, and was the largest and richest country in Europe. Waterloo was important, but it wasn’t the deciding factor in losing first place to Britain by the mid-19th century. Britain’s own success in the Industrial Revolution was more responsible for its eventual dominance than defeating Napoleon. Further, Napoleon was on a losing trajectory in 1815. Even if he had won the battle of Waterloo, he was almost certain to have been defeated by the Austrians or the Russians, who were waiting to fight him. The reasons for Napoleon’s decline (and France’s decline) were that the economy was struggling, that the country was worn out from war, and that the Little Corporal’s domestic support was waning.
Why did these myths come about? Like sports victories, even closely-fought games often get analyzed and exaggerated as clear victories for the winning team, despite the fact that, like Waterloo, there were various points in the game where it could have gone have gone the other way. Coaches and team leaders seem like geniuses after these victories, even though they weren’t.
Granted, Wellington was a good general and was certainly brave. But all kinds of fortuitous things had to happen for him to win the Battle of Waterloo–especially General Blucher’s Prussian army arriving just in time to halt a fourth-quarter comeback by Team Napoleon.
King me, Buzzkillers!