They were defeated, we won the war

The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago today, and the anniversary has been marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Europe; here in the UK we have had reenactments and services of thanksgiving, while the French, perhaps unsurprisingly, have more or less ignored it.

Napoleon’s final defeat is generally remembered, in this country at least, as a stirring British victory over French tyranny; this overlooks the fact that, over the course of the Napoleonic wars, Britain contributed relatively little to the fighting on the ground, preferring to subsidise continental allies. Napoleon was undone by his disastrous campaign in Russia, and his real climatic defeat came at the Battle of Leipzig; the 100 days leading up to Waterloo was just a bloody coda.

It’s understandable that the British establishment, facing present-day worries about its place in Europe, should turn to the past for comfort. At the time of the battle the UK was little over a century old; Wellington’s victory cemented the nation and ushered in an era of British dominance that didn’t begin to falter until the First World War.

Whatever one thinks of Napoleon, the defeat of the French Republic at the hands of an alliance of monarchies was hardly a victory for progress. The Congress of Vienna saw the Bourbons restored in France, and entrenched absolutism across the continent, hastening the rise of Prussia and setting the scene for the tragic century that was to follow.

The ideals of the revolution could not be held down though. It wasn’t long before the French people rose again, and after years of struggle, a Second Empire, and another war against the Prussians, they were eventually done with kings for good. The Paris Commune, cruelly suppressed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, was the high point of this period, and is still inspirational today.

So perhaps the French, who, in my experience, know their history very well, are right to be ambivalent about Waterloo. The Ancien Régime can win a battle, but the war goes on.

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