England’s love-hate relationship with France dates back to the Norman Conquest and is unlikely to be improved by this year’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
History relates that it was a fluke that the British and Prussian coalition won the Battle of Waterloo, bringing to an end 22 years of conflict in Europe. Yet the imagination of painters, writers, and journalists on both sides of the conflict still led to myth-making on a grand scale. Few were entirely accurate in their accounts, but many vividly conveyed the fear, horror, and pandemonium of a battle in which a conservative estimate says 50,000 men and 1,200 horses died in just a few hours.
Three nights before the battle of Waterloo, the English Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in Brussels and invited many of the officers of the allied armies. The Duke of Wellington, commander-in-chief of the English army, is said to have been one of the guests. While the ball was in full swing, a messenger brought word to Wellington that the French under Napoleon were advancing towards the city. Wellington did not wish to alarm anyone and so kept the information to himself, but he sent the officers one by one to their regiments and finally left for the field himself.
Part of One of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold” (published in 1818) describes this event, which occurred just before the battle of Quatre Bras fought near Brussels on 16 June 1815, a preliminary to the battle of Waterloo that took place two days later. Byron concludes by saluting the bloody victory at Waterloo while bitterly lamenting the loss of life:
“Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay,
The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms,—the day
Battle’s magnificently-stern array!
The thunder-clouds close o’er it, which when rent,
The earth is cover’d thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heap’d and pent,
Rider and horse—friend, foe—in one red burial blent!”
The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy was also inspired by the Napoleonic Wars as a historical event and twice visited the site of the battle of Waterloo. In his novel The Trumpet-Major (1880), he describes the looming menace of Napoleon, doubtless based on stories heard in his youth. Later, verses from The Dynasts (1910) unusually present a view of the Waterloo battlefield from the perspective of the natural world. Hardy depicts the violence and bloodshed by revealing the fate of the various animals and plants that inhabited the field on which the battle rages.
One of the most memorable accounts of the Battle of Waterloo can be found in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) At the beginning of Part Two, titled “Waterloo”, the author presents a historical interlude to describe a battle in which his own father, a high-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army, might have taken part had he not been assigned duties elsewhere. Hugo writes from the perspective of Europe after Napoleon’s demise, characterising it as a counterrevolution that saw the end of a dictatorship and the beginning of true liberty. And, politically astute as ever Hugo, strips away the aura of “death and glory” that surrounded what he called “more of a massacre than a battle”.
Today, the field of Waterloo is remarkably unchanged and very well trodden by tourists. Along with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s exploits at Trafalgar it figures prominently in British military and imperial history. But in 2015 the bogeyman of Europe is no longer France (despite the best efforts of French farmers and air traffic controllers to disrupt the entente cordiale and even despite Marine Le Pen, who has ambitions to be Joan of Arc if not Empress). The bogeyman today is Russia in the person of Tsar Putin and if the European Union continues on its present course of provoking the Russian bear, it may meet its own Waterloo two centuries after defeating Napoleon and exiling him to the island of St Helena.