How Napoleon won at Waterloo

The battle went to Wellington. But for once, it was the losers who wrote the history

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

In a one-horse town called Hestrud, on the Franco-Belgian border, there’s a monument which encapsulates Europe’s enduring fascination with Napoleon. The story carved upon this plinth is more like poetry than reportage. As Napoleon passed through here, on his way to Waterloo, he struck up a conversation with a bold little boy called Cyprien Joseph Charlet. ‘You think victory will always follow you, but it always disappears,’ this audacious lad told him, apparently. ‘If I were you, I’d stay at home. Tomorrow your star will surely dim.’

Well, that’s the story, anyway. Fact or fiction, or a bit of both? In a way, it hardly matters. Napoleon recorded this incident in his memoirs, casting himself as a tragic hero, and much of Europe has taken him at his own estimation. Napoleon met his Waterloo, but today his star burns brighter than ever. ‘Living, he failed to win the world,’ wrote Chateaubriand. ‘Dead, he possesses it.’ And his ultimate monument is the European Union.

CommŽmoration Bataille de Waterloo
Photo: Culturespaces

Naturally, in France Napoleon is still revered. Had Britain produced such a military maestro, we’d probably forgive his many flaws. It’s elsewhere in the eurozone that his veneration is so intriguing. These were countries that he conquered, at the cost of almost a million men, but in the lands he bled white there’s no sense that he’s despised. In Britain he’s a pantomime villain. Here in the Low Countries he’s a sort of Caesar. He personifies the growing division between Britain and the EU.

If you swot up on your European history, it’s easy to see why Napoleon is regarded far more benevolently here. For the beleaguered Belgians, Napoleon was one in a long line of foreign despots. Before the French revolution, they were subjects of the Austrian Emperor; afterwards, of the Dutch king. No wonder they quite liked Napoleon. He curbed the worst excesses of the revolution. He fostered trade and industry. He created wealth. He promoted talent. Belgium’s legal system is still based on the Code Napoléon.

vue du ciel lion Waterloo
Photo: WBT – J.L. Flemal

Belgium’s illicit affection for L’Empereur is revealed in the sites along the country’s newly signposted Route Napoléon, from Hestrud to Waterloo, in the makeshift memorials in the chateaux where he stayed. Here he’s portrayed as a tormented genius, not the absurd tyrant of English folklore.

Two hundred years after Napoleon came and went, this Francophone part of Belgium still feels like a département of Napoleonic France. In the pretty market town of Thuin, where Napoleon fought off Blücher’s Prussians, military marches are an annual event. Colourful religious processions have been a tradition here since the Middle Ages. Banned by the Habsburgs, they were reinstated by Napoleon. Today they’re re-enacted in Napoleonic uniform.

CommŽmoration Bataille de Waterloo
Photo: Alex Kouprianoff

This Napoleonic nostalgiafest reaches its climax at Waterloo. Despite its proximity to Brussels, the battlefield is almost unchanged 199 years on. A wide expanse of open fields, shielded by wooded hills, it’s a natural amphitheatre. You can see why Wellington chose to fight here. The houses in which the two commanders spent the night before the battle are both still standing, preserved as museums. In the gift shops, Napoleonic knick-knacks far outnumber Wellingtonian souvenirs. A lot of Europeans have never heard of Wellington. Many of them assume Napoleon was the victor at Waterloo.

This ambivalence about Wellington’s victory is a rude shock for British visitors, but if you’re from the Low Countries, it makes perfect sense. Belgian soldiers fought on both sides at Waterloo. Some of Wellington’s Belgian troops had previously fought for Napoleon. Annexed, occupied, conquered and reconquered, prudent Belgians have long since learned to keep their heads down. It’s no surprise national sovereignty isn’t such a burning issue over here.

Waterloo has been a tourist attraction since 1815. A local farmer who briefed Napoleon before the battle became the first tour guide. There are several Allied memorials scattered around the battlefield, but the legend of Napoleon surpasses them. In 1912, a panoramic painting of the battle was installed here in a purpose-built gallery. It’s still here today. It shows Napoleon on a white charger, rallying his troops. Actually he was too ill to ride around and spent most of the battle in a comfy chair. No matter. Immortalised by storytellers and actors, from Victor Hugo to Rod Steiger, Le Petit Caporal has passed from history into mythology. Preparations are already underway for next year’s bicentenary. Five thousand enthusiasts will re-enact the battle, watched by 200,000 spectators, the biggest battle re-enactment in the world.

Photo: Joseph Jeanmart

How ironic that Napoleon was defeated here as he tried to enter Brussels. Today it seems inconceivable that any future battles will be fought here, but looking out across this windswept plain you realise that, in some ways, not a lot has changed. Ideologically, at least, the battleground remains much the same. Britain still wants a Europe of independent nation states, just as we did 200 years ago. Belgium and her neighbours are far more accustomed to confederations, just as they were back then. In 1815 we fought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. In various ways, we’ve been fighting the same battle ever since.

My Belgian friends protest when I venture this vague comparison. ‘The EU is a democracy!’ they exclaim. ‘Napoleon was a dictator!’ Actually, I didn’t mean to sound quite so critical of the EU — or Napoleon — as they suppose. Without his wars of conquest, a Napoleonic Europe sounds like quite an attractive concept; a sensible solution to the countless conflicts that have plagued the continent. All I meant, and all most Britons mean, is that it feels incompatible with British history. Our island story is very different, in no small part because of Waterloo. In 1815 we won a battle that shaped Europe for a century. Today, despite our best efforts, the course of European history seems to be moving the other way. Rotten weather rescued Wellington. Heavy rain turned these fields to mud, slowing Napoleon’s advance and rendering his cavalry and artillery ineffective. As we leave this famous battlefield, bound for Brussels and the Eurostar back to London, the sun shines down on Waterloo from a cloudless summer sky.

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  • billypilgrim59

    Waterloo did not shape British history. Trafalgar had already done that by sealing our naval superiority for a century.

    • Aloysius

      Of course Trafalgar sealed British naval supremacy, but the consequences of this are seen more in the Empire than continental Europe. The author says that Waterloo shaped Europe for a century, not British history. It is contentious to say that Waterloo was insignificant in shaping either British history or European. The battle ended the potential for France to dominate Europe for the next century. Had this happened, our lives would be rather different I think.

      • Weaver

        Would a different outcome have changed things much?

        Even a French victory would not have shattered the coalition, and another would have risen to take its place anyway. France had grown progressively weaker; in material and political cohesion, through the wars, and her opponents stronger and more organised.

        By the start of the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s chances of final victory are already pretty close to zero; he just didn’t know it.

    • justejudexultionis

      The Seven Years War did more to establish the British Empire (through the acquisition of India and Canada) than the Napoleonic wars, which merely helped confirm Britain’s existence as a free and sovereign state.

  • Extraordinarily ill-informed piece of writing. The battlefield has been completely transformed since 1815. Sure Napoleon argued that he won the Battle of Waterloo – but since he and his troops fled the battlefield it was always a pretty insane claim; his military campaigns wrecked the French economy for over a hundred years, France lost an empire in America and India, the loss of the French navy gave Britain command of the seas for another hundred years – no Napoleon was a disaster

    PS ‘Le Petit Caporal’ was Napoleon’s grandson Napoleon III

    • justejudexultionis

      Check your facts. The French lost India and Canada to Britain after the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the Treaty of Paris – Napoleon was not born until 1769. If anything ‘wrecked’ the French economy it was French assistance to the American revolutionaries, which bankrupted the state and helped destroy the Ancien Regime. France was fairly robust economically throughout the nineteenth-century, although politically volatile in comparison with Britain. You might also recall that Paris was the de facto intellectual, artistic and cultural centre of the world for another century after the downfall of Napoleon I.

  • justejudexultionis

    What?! Napoleon beaten at Waterloo? When did that happen? Why wasn’t I informed? Saddle my horse immediately and send word to Dover to have my ship ready.

  • Michael Burke

    The English never beat the French at anything. The French seemed always to have the English measured up good and proper when it mattered most. I think it’s envy on the Englishmans side.

  • Michael Burke