200 years since the Battle of Waterloo: A Battle that changed world history

The Battle of Waterloo - 200 years ago, on 18th June 1815 - was the last great event that marked the end of that great historical process that was begun in 1789 by the Great French Revolution. With the defeat of Napoleon, the last flickering embers of the fires lit by revolutionary France were extinguished. A long, grey period settled down on Europe like a thick coat of suffocating dust. The forces of triumphant reaction seemed firmly in the saddle.

Battle of Waterloo 1815Waterloo is one of the defining events of European and world history. About that, there can be no doubt. It brought to an end the bloody Napoleonic Wars that had led directly to the deaths of up to 6 million people. Bonaparte, with his unbridled ambition, wanted to be Master of all Europe. But he came up against a solid phalanx of reactionary feudal monarchs: the Russian tsar, the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austro-Hungary, always backed by the financial reserves and the naval power of Great Britain.

The rivalry between England and France was not new. For the best part of a century, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France led to war after war. France had backed the rebellion of the American colonies with the aim of undermining the power of the British Empire. The Americans had won their freedom but France was financially crippled. It was precisely the struggle over who paid for the resulting deficit that lit the fuse that led to the explosion of July 1789.

The French Revolution

frenchrevolutionThe French Revolution was one of the greatest events in human history. Even today it is an endless source of inspiration. At every stage the motor force that drove the Revolution forward, sweeping aside all obstacles, was the active participation of the masses. And when this active participation of the masses ebbed, the Revolution came to a full stop and went into reverse. That was what led directly to reaction, firstly of the Thermidorian and later of the Bonapartist variety.

The enemies of the French Revolution always try to blacken its image with the accusation of violence and bloodshed. As a matter of fact, the violence of the masses is inevitably a reaction against the violence of the old ruling class. The origins of the Terror must be sought in the reaction of the revolution to the threat of violent overthrow from both internal and external enemies. The revolutionary dictatorship was the result of revolutionary war and was only an expression of the latter.

Under the rule of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the semi-proletarian Sans-culottes carried the Revolution to a successful conclusion. In fact, the masses pushed the leaders to go far further than they had intended. Objectively, the Revolution was bourgeois-democratic in character, since the development of the productive forces and the proletariat had not yet reached a point where the question of socialism could be posed.

At a certain point, the process, having reached its limits, had to go into reverse. Robespierre and his faction struck down the Left wing and were then cut down themselves. The Thermidorian reactionaries in France hunted and oppressed the Jacobins, while the masses, worn out by years of exertion and sacrifice, had begun to fall into passivity and indifference. The pendulum now swung sharply to the right. But it did not restore the Ancien Regime. The fundamental socio-economic gains of the Revolution remained. The power of the landed aristocracy was broken.

The rotten and corrupt Directory was followed by the equally rotten and corrupt personal dictatorship of Bonaparte. The French bourgeoisie was terrified of the Jacobins and the Sans-culottes, with their egalitarian and levelling tendencies. But it was even more terrified by the threat of royalist counterrevolution, which would drive it from power and put the clock back to pre-1789. The wars continued and there were still internal revolts by reactionaries. The only way out was to reintroduce dictatorship, but in the form of military rule. The bourgeoisie was looking for a Saviour and found one in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte.

On 18th Brumaire (9 November) 1799, Bonaparte seized power in France by means of a coup. Bonaparte restored all the outward trappings of the old aristocratic order, while preserving the main socio-economic gain of the Revolution: the handing over of land to the peasantry. Here we find the secret of the French peasantry's fanatical loyalty to Bonaparte and his successors. Stalin, while destroying Lenin’s regime of workers’ democracy and exterminating the Old Bolsheviks, nevertheless defended the new nationalized property relations that had been established by the October Revolution. In the same way, Napoleon, while crushing the revolutionaries under a military jackboot, defended the new property relations established in 1789-93.

Bonapartism is, in essence, rule by the sword—the personal dictatorship of a military strong man. But it also has another peculiarity. The Bonapartist dictator tends to balance between the classes, presenting himself as the embodiment of the Nation, standing above all classes, above good and evil. But Napoleon’s prestige and authority depended on his ability to defeat the enemies of France and bring victory – and loot. He said: “To have good soldiers, a nation must always be at war.” And he made sure that France was always at war.

The Napoleonic wars

napoleon bonaparteThe overthrow of the Monarchy in France added a new and terrible virulence to the old conflict with Britain. Henceforth the hatred of the ruling English aristocratic class knew no bounds. The hand of England was behind every anti-revolutionary Coalition. They paid the bills for foreign mercenary armies sent against France. But each time they invaded, they were met with the ferocious resistance of the revolutionary people and its army. One after the other, the counter-revolutionary armies were driven back and the revolutionary armies advanced.

Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802. That brief interlude was the only period of general peace in Europe between 1792 and 1814. But the Peace of Amiens was only a preparation for a new war. The uneasy truce was brought to an end when Britain declared war on France in May 1803. This is the most commonly accepted date for the real commencement of the Napoleonic wars. Thereafter, the history of Europe was one war after another.

The wars of Napoleon are often seen as a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars, but in reality their content was different. War, as Clausewitz explained, is the continuation of politics by other means. A revolutionary regime wages war by revolutionary means. But the counter-revolutionary Thermidorian regime that arose out of the defeat of the Jacobins was of an entirely different character. In its early, progressive phase, the French Revolution stood for universal freedom. The banner of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity set Europe ablaze and inspired the hopes of men and women everywhere. The revolutionary government offered "fraternity and assistance" to all peoples that were prepared to follow the French example and fight for their freedom.

However, under the Directory, and still more under Napoleon, this revolutionary message was distorted. While for many French rule was vastly preferable to the rule of “our own” aristocrats, priests and kings, the reality of Bonapartism all too frequently revealed itself as cynical, oppressive and corrupt. In the figure of Napoleon the Revolution appeared increasingly as a grotesque caricature. When the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, heard that Napoleon had had himself crowned as Emperor, he exclaimed: “So he also is only a man!” And he tore out his dedication to Napoleon from the score of his Eroica Symphony with such violence that he tore a hole in the manuscript.

In the last analysis, these wars were a titanic conflict between France and Britain for the domination of Europe and the world. British policy was to maintain a balance between the Powers in Europe and thus guarantee her domination over all of them. This was threatened by Napoleon's victories in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. They feared losing control, as well as loss of markets, and saw Napoleon as a possible threat to Britain’s overseas colonies. Above all they feared that Napoleon would gain complete control of Europe, leaving Britain isolated.

With a population of 16 million Britain was half the size of France with 30 million. But Britain had entered the road of capitalist development much earlier than France and was able to mobilize its huge industrial and financial resources to defeat its enemy. It let others do the fighting for them and paid the bills. British subsidies paid for the services of Austrian and Russian soldiers. Under the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1803, Britain paid a subsidy of ₤1.5 million for every 100,000 Russian soldiers in the field.

As an island power, Britain depended crucially on her navy. From the beginning Britain retained its control of the seas. It is no accident that the celebrated anthem Rule Britannia contains the words:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never
Shall be slaves!

At the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, the British Navy under Admiral Lord Nelson won the most decisive naval victory of the war. Twenty-seven British warships defeated thirty-three French and Spanish in the Atlantic off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without the loss of a single British ship. But on the European Continent itself matters were entirely different. Here the French ruled supreme. By 1807 her armies had successively eliminated Austria, Prussia and Russia as military opponents. Britain alone continued to resist the power of France, achieving security against invasion through Nelson's victory.

In response to the naval blockade of the French coasts enacted by the British government on 16 May 1806, Napoleon introduced the Continental System, a policy aimed to isolate Britain by closing French-controlled territory (that is, most of Europe) to its trade. The policy was only partially successful, but it antagonised European countries whose trade was this disrupted.

Spain, Russia, Elba

There is no question that Napoleon was a great general. In the course of his military career, he fought about 60 battles and lost seven, mostly towards the end. Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram: it reads like the triumphal march of an invincible army. Yet in the end, Napoleon met his Waterloo. In fact, even on the face of this triumphal façade, cracks had begun to appear. The most serious was Spain.

It could be argued that the seeds of Napoleon's defeat and abdication in 1814 were sown by the Emperor himself six years earlier when he usurped the Spanish throne for his brother Joseph and, in so doing, provoked the Spanish people to revolt. The Peninsular War, known in Spain as La Guerra de la Independencia Española (Spanish War of Independence) began with the heroic prising of the people of Madrid against the occupying French forces on 2 May 1808, and ended on 17 April 1814.

The war in Spain represented a colossal drain of blood and treasure for the French and ended in defeat. The Spanish war was characterised by guerrilla tactics – the first time that word was used. The hit-and-run tactics of the Spanish irregular forces gradually sapped the strength of the French armies. The Spanish guerrilla forces were backed by English troops led by the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, who was Napoleon’s nemesis. By 1810-1811, 300,000 French troops were tied down in the Peninsula. Yet only 70,000 of these could be spared to fight Wellington; the remainder were pinned down by the threat of local insurrections and guerrilla actions.

The most decisive turning point, however, was Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. His armies succeeded in seizing Moscow but were forced to retreat through the icy blizzards of the Russian winter, which decimated his armies. The exhausted French soldiers struggled through the snow up till their knees. On the night of November 8/9 alone nearly 10,000 men and horses froze to death. This was a defeat from which Napoleon never recovered.

Encouraged by Napoleon’s Russian debacle, Prussia joined Austria, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal in a new coalition (the Sixth). Wellington had routed the French army in Spain on 21st June 1813 in the Battle of Vitoria. News of Wellington's victory rallied the Prussian-Russian alliance and contributed towards the consolidation of the Coalition. But despite these setbacks, Napoleon was still able to field 350,000 troops. He inflicted a series of defeats on the Coalition culminating in the Battle of Dresden in August 1813. But the numbers continued to mount against Napoleon, and the French army was defeated by a force twice its size and lost at the Battle of Leipzig, which cost more than 90,000 casualties.

The Allies offered peace terms, according to which Napoleon would remain as Emperor of France, could keep control of Belgium, Savoy and the Rhineland (the west bank of the Rhine River), while giving up Spain and the Netherlands, most of Italy and Germany. It was a good offer, but Napoleon, ever the gambler, expected to win the war and lost the opportunity. The Allies, impatient of his delays and prevarications, withdrew their offer.

When he tried to reopen peace negotiations on the basis of accepting the earlier proposals, Napoleon was confronted with new, harsher terms. He would remain Emperor, but France would have to return to its 1791 boundaries, which meant losing Belgium. In reality, the British did not want him to accept. They wanted to crush him once and for all. And they got what they wanted. Napoleon refused and withdrew to France, although his army was now reduced to 70,000 soldiers, and a few cavalry. He was outnumbered more than three times by the Allied forces.

France was surrounded by her enemies. British armies advanced from the south, and other Coalition forces were poised to attack from Germany. Napoleon won a series of victories in the Six days’ Campaign, but the situation was hopeless. Paris surrendered to the Coalition in March 1814. The victors exiled Napoleon to Elba, an island of 12,000 inhabitants in the Mediterranean off the Tuscan coast. To the man who had been the Master of Europe they graciously gave sovereignty over a tiny island. And with a delicious sense of humour, they allowed him to retain the title of Emperor.

Napoleon clearly did not appreciate the joke. Breaking out of his nine-month exile on Elba, he quickly returned to France to mobilise an army. It was an audacious plan. The army sent to intercept him made contact near Grenoble on 7 March 1815. Napoleon approached the regiment unaccompanied, dismounted his horse and, when he was within gunshot range, shouted, "Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.” The soldiers responded with, "Vive L'Empereur!" and joined Napoleon in his march to Paris.

The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII fled for his life. On 13 March, the powers assembled in the Congress of Vienna and declared Napoleon an outlaw. Four days later, Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia each pledged to put 150,000 men into the field to defeat him once and for all. Napoleon had succeeded in raising an army of nearly 200,000 men to confront the Coalition forces.

The conception of his final campaign was brilliant. He planned to split the forces commanded by Wellington from the Prussian army under Gebhard von Blücher and then defeat each separately. However, its execution depended on speed and decisiveness, and it seems that Napoleon’s immediate subordinates, Marshals Ney and Grouchy were not entirely up to the task.

The Battle of Waterloo

Wellington commented some years later:

“The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”

A very strange comparison! Anything less like a ball it would be hard to imagine. The scale of the slaughter and suffering was immense. Especially if we bear in mind that the whole thing took place in fields 10 miles (16km) south of Brussels. On one long June day, around 200,000 men fought each other, compressed into an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres). The resulting slaughter was frightful beyond description. When darkness finally fell, up to 50,000 men were lying dead or seriously wounded and 10,000 horses were dead or dying.

The night before the battle, Wellington stayed at a Waterloo inn while Napoleon was three miles south. Their men slept out in the open as rain fell throughout the night. Wellington knew that the chances for victory depended on the arrival of General Blücher and the Prussian army who were recuperating in Wavre, 18 miles east of Waterloo. Napoleon’s plan was based on keeping the Prussians and British armies separated, so that he could defeat Wellington and take Brussels. But Wellington, who had experienced and competent subordinates and staffs, was unmatched in the art of defence.

Wellington established a strong defensive position, blocking the road to Brussels in order to stop Napoleon’s advance towards the capital. He knew he was outnumbered - approximately 68,000 Allied troops versus Napoleon's 72,000. Therefore he positioned his men behind a ridge and in three farms: Papelotte, Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. From here he could try and hold the ground until the Prussians arrived.

Engels himself noted that the British infantry was outstanding in its ability to stand firm, stolidly resisting any attack. Wellington’s men were hardened veterans of the Peninsular War, soldiers of the highest quality. This highly disciplined army withstood repeated attacks by the French and drove them from the field. Their stubborn resistance gave the Prussians time to arrive in force and break through Napoleon's right flank, which decided the outcome of the battle.

Napoleon could see that the ground was sodden from the night's rainfall, making it difficult to move his men and guns into position. He therefore decided to delay his first major attack until the ground had dried out. This was a dangerous strategy as it could allow time for Blücher's army to arrive and join Wellington on the ridge. But the prospect of the French infantry and cavalry wading through a sea of mud risked tiring them out in the early stages of the battle.

For now, Napoleon decided to draw out the British and make a dent in their defensive position. He began the battle with an assault of large-scale cannon fire and then launched an attack on Wellington's most well-defended garrison in Hougoumont farm. The 5000 French troops far outnumbered the 1500 British holed up inside. But its walls made it a strong fortress. The British were able to fire at the French through holes in the walls who were sitting targets. All day long the French hurled themselves against Hougoumont. At 12.30 they broke the gates open, but the British quickly closed them again, trapping 40 French soldiers inside. They slaughtered all but an 11 year old drummer boy.

This was actually a diversion to cover Napoleon’s real aim, which was to damage the centre of the British line. He sent 18,000 infantry along the road to Brussels to strike a decisive blow. They captured the farm of Papelotte and the area surrounding La Haye Sainte. It looked like victory was now within now Napoleon’s grasp. Suddenly he was informed that the Prussians were advancing. To make matters worse, Wellington’s cavalry charged at the French infantry, slicing through their ranks like scythes through a field of corn. Napoleon’s line had been seriously weakened.

Although Blücher was unable to reach Wellington at the main battle, his efforts meant the French were under pressure and had to split their resources. The Prussians attacked the French vigorously: Napoleon was forced to commit more troops over the course of the afternoon as the territory changed hands several times. Wellington could hear the cannon fire in the distance – he knew Blücher had formed his own formidable front line, as promised.

The French were now fighting on two fronts. That was what Napoleon wanted to avoid at all costs. In a desperate attempt to liquidate the British force, he ordered Marshal Ney to capture La Haye Sainte, Wellington’s central stronghold. For two hours, wave after wave of heavily armoured French soldiers on horseback charged at the Allied line. The Allied troops formed squares. They drove off the 4000-strong French cavalry but they were now a sitting target for Napoleon's heavy artillery. Out of the 747 men of the British 27th Regiment nearly 500 were killed.

After hours under attack, La Haye Sainte finally fell. Wellington had lost his prize garrison. This was a crushing blow. Napoleon was now able to bring the French artillery forward and attack the Allied centre with devastating results. All Wellington could do was defend from behind the ridge and hope for the Prussian's swift arrival with reinforcements.

Napoleon knew that time was running out. He therefore played his ace card, ordering his crack troops, the Imperial Guard, to attack. These fearless men advanced, swords drawn, a magnificent sight. Wellington's men waited out of sight in the long grass behind the ridge. When the French reached the ridge, Wellington ordered his men to stand and open fire. They fired at almost point blank range. A deadly hail of musket balls tore through the French soldiers, forcing them reeling back, their potential as a fighting force utterly broken.

The final outcome of the Battle was in doubt almost till the last moment. But the rout of the Imperial Guard must have dealt a shattering blow to Napoleon’s morale and a turning-point in the battle. At last, Blücher's forces were now arriving. The Allied army advanced, pursuing the Imperial Guard. The Emperor was shielded by his men as they fled the field. Wellington had a chance to kill Napoleon, but it seems he ordered his men to hold their fire.

After his defeat Napoleon threw himself on the mercy of the British, naively hoping that he might live out his days as a country gentleman in England. But this time they were taking no chances. He was taken politely but firmly by officers of the Royal Navy to a ship bound for his second and final exile. They had orders to transport him to St Helena, a remote island where he would find it impossible to cause them any more trouble.

The Emperor and his remaining followers were deeply affronted by this betrayal. But he was fortunate not to have fallen into the hands of the Prussians, who, had they caught him, would have been somewhat less considerate. He would have been strung up from the nearest tree. On the shores of a desert island, the man who wanted to be Master of the World could at least spend the rest of his days contemplating beautiful sunsets, the master of all he surveyed. That is far more than the poor devils whose corpses covered the fields of Waterloo.

Nobody knows how many exactly were killed because the French losses were only estimates—Johnny Kincaid, an officer of the 95th Rifles who survived the onslaught by the French on Wellington’s centre near La Haie Sainte farm, coolly declared: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

It is often said that the Duke of Wellington exclaimed on surveying the scene of carnage after the battle: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” What he actually said was: “Thank God, I don’t know what it is like to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.”

Of course, the 20th century saw a great advance in human civilization, and particularly in the ability of people to slaughter other people. Compared to the Battle of the Somme, the business at Waterloo was only a minor skirmish. So far has humanity advanced!

The aftermath

Was the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo inevitable? Certainly, Wellington did not think so. He said later, it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”. Mistakes were made. Napoleon deprived himself of his two most effective generals: Marshal Davout, left behind to guard Paris, and Marshal Suchet, who he put in charge of defending the eastern border against possible attack by the Austrians. The second was Ney’s hesitation in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, the key to dividing the coalition armies.

The Comte d’Erlon and his 20,000 troops wandered aimlessly in the pouring rain between the battle at Quatre Bras against the Anglo-Dutch and the battle at Ligny that the Prussians were losing. Had he intervened in either, the impact could have been decisive. The lack of initiative by Grouchy allowed the regrouped Prussians to outflank him and arrive at the critical moment to save Wellington at Waterloo.

However, even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, he could not ultimately have won the war. The sheer size and determination of the forces ranged against him across Europe made this impossible. The consequences of the Battle of Waterloo were profound and lasted for decades, while redrawing the map of Europe. Britain and her allies created a reactionary system known as the Concert of Europe that bolstered all the reactionary monarchist regimes in Europe.

In France the Bourbon Monarchy was restored. Like a swarm of hungry locusts an army of pampered aristocratic parasites descended on France, eager to suck the blood of its people. The Roman Catholic Church regained its power and, against the stubborn resistance of the majority who had learned to breathe the air of freedom, began the arduous task of re-imposing the old spiritual dictatorship. France settled down to years of stifling repression.

All over Europe there was a carnival of counterrevolution. From St. Petersburg to Naples society was crushed under the leaden rump of reaction. Nevertheless, the wars of Napoleon had revolutionary consequences. They resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and sowed the seeds of nationalism that would lead to the consolidations of Germany and Italy later on.

Even in their distorted Bonapartist disguise the democratic ideals of the French Revolution had lit a flame in hearts and minds that would not easily be extinguished. That was shown even in tsarist Russia by the Decembrist Revolt. This first manifestation of the Russian revolution was led by young army officers who had fought in the wars and had been affected by democratic and revolutionary ideas. It was brutally crushed and its leaders executed. But the example of the Decembrists was to inspire a new generation of revolutionary youth, and ultimately laid the foundations for the Bolshevik Revolution.

The years after Waterloo were a period of immense political tension and mass protests in Britain. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was widespread. The disastrous Corn Laws made bread unaffordable for many. In post-war Britain the unrest among working people began to express itself in the formation of organised political groups calling for democracy. In 1819, the Female Reform Society of Manchester denounced the “unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France”, stating that it had “tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with an insurmountable burden of Taxation.”

On the 16th of August 1819 in the huge open area around what is now St Peter's Square, Manchester, a mass protest rally of over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters was brutally crushed in what became known as The Peterloo Massacre. It is estimated that 18 people, including a woman and a child, died from sabre cuts or being trampled under horses’ hooves, while over 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. Although he was not personally involved in this massacre, the Duke of Wellington earned the hatred of the radicals because of his hostility to reform. The name of the Peterloo Massacre was an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo.

In Germany, the reaction against Napoleon led to an upsurge of nationalist feelings, especially among the intellectuals and students who set up clubs called Burschenschaft. Discontented with the regime established by the Congress of Vienna, the German nationalists began assassinating reactionary leaders. Metternich reacted by pushing the Carlsbad Decrees, which outlawed the Burschenschaft and drove them underground. The decrees increased government regulation of the universities, limiting what was taught, and paved the way for government censorship of German newspapers.

This ferment among German intellectuals eventually produced the authors of The Communist Manifesto, which opens with the celebrated words:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

These words describe the reactionary system that was established by the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It was intended to eliminate the risk of revolution forever, to exorcise the spectre of the French Revolution forever. The brutal dictatorship of the “powers of old Europe” seemed as if it would last forever. But sooner or later things will turn into their opposite. Beneath the surface of reaction, new forces were gradually maturing and a new revolutionary class – the proletariat - was stretching its limbs.

The counter-revolution was overthrown by a new revolutionary wave that swept over Europe in 1848. These revolutions were fought under the banner of democracy – the same banner that was raised over the barricades of Paris in 1789. But everywhere the leading force in the revolution was not the cowardly, reactionary bourgeoisie but the lineal descendants of the French Sans-culottes – the working class, which inscribed on its banner a new kind of revolutionary ideal, the ideal of Communism.