Today’s episode is a full episode and a return to the narrative where we left it in February at the end of the battle of Waterloo. Since then we’ve done a special episode on battlefield surgery and then we did an episode on the amazing Annie Besant and the Matchstick Girls strike, which was the Easter Special.
They say that the mark of a man is how he copes with getting knocked down. Personally, I think that phrase just perpetuates some unhealthy stereotypes, but let’s run with it for this episode. When we left the last show it was the night after Waterloo. Napoleon had suffered a catastrophic defeat. Most people honestly either fall to pieces after relatively small set backs, or they are too afraid to take risks that might end in failure. Napoleon though was now suffering massive defeat. He had been beaten before in his career, and exiled, but there was a different air to this. This was the wreck of his entire army in what had seemed an even contest. He was on the verge of triumph. It was really his last great throw of the dice.
Can you imagine the stress he would have been under. He was the Emperor of France. The country and the lives of its people were his responsibility. His beloved army was scattered and in retreat. He had political enemies at home. It seems to me that he suffered some kind of mental breakdown as his behaviour over the next few days indicated. Perhaps the closest I can describe it is imagine your business goes bankrupt and your partner leaves you on the same day. That’s sort of the stress Napoleon was under. Except far worse. Whatever his many faults, Napoleon loved France and he must have known that this would have dire consequences for his beloved homeland.
As the 19 June arrived, Marshal Grouchy actually won the last real French victory against the Prussians. It was for nothing. News of the disaster of Waterloo reached him early on 19 June. The messengers were so overwrought that at first Grouchy could barely understand them. When he did, his blood must have run cold. Not only was this absolute defeat, but he knew instantly that when he had refused the advice of General Girad the previous day to march his men toward the sound of the gunfire at Waterloo, he had contributed to that defeat. If he had listened to his subordinates advice, perhaps he would have been able to help at Waterloo.
Immediately Marshal Grouchy began his excuses, and he would continue to give them for the rest of his life.
The main French army was in dire straights. Almost all of it was a confused mass of men, wagons and horses. Many had thrown away their weapons and were helpless against the vengeful Prussians. Some sources state that the Prussians were killing wounded and prisoners. Some French troops committed suicide rather than fall into Prussian hands. If even a quarter of the French army could have got organised, they could have held up the Prussians at the critical choke point provided by the town of Genappe where the bridge crossed the river Dyle. It would have provided critical hours for the main of the army to reform and get to safety. It wasn’t to be. Only a few regiments of the Old Guard retained the iron discipline and weapons for an ordered retreat.
There would have been a big difference in a post Napoleonic French political order if the army had been able to stage a fighting retreat from Waterloo rather than being swept away in a rout. The army could have been a nucleus for new recruits, acted as a counter balance to the chamber of deputies and made an Allied invasion a much tougher prospect. It was the chaos, not the actual causalities that made recovery impossible.
Marshal Grouchy was retreating too. He was doing it in good order, not just because he hadn’t been involved in the catastrophe at Waterloo, but because he actually seemed to up his game considerably. He performed a masterful fighting retreat. He managed to recapture some lost cannon, fend off Prussian cavalry and take up fortified positions in Namur. He got plentiful support from the Napoleon loving locals. He beat off a Prussian attack, and even managed to kill the future Chancellor Otto Von Bismarks uncle, then another retreat, blowing up bridges as he went. Again the intangibles of psychology are at work here. Why did he only start performing when it was critical and yet unimportant. Was it that he needed the shock to his system. Had he been too inexperienced and complacent before Waterloo, only to be galvanised by news of the defeat? Or is it just that a fighting retreat needed less initiative from him. We might never know those reasons.
For the Allies too, the night after battle was as much about mourning as it was about celebrating. Wellington was physically and mentally exhausted. He had had an incredibly stressful day, almost always under fire and watching as the fate of Europe itself hung in the balance. He visited his friend and Aide De Camp Sir Alexander Gordon as soon as he left the battlefield. Sir Alexander had to have his leg amputated at the groin and if you listened to my battlefield surgery episode you will know just how incredibly dangerous that was. After visiting his Wellington sent news to Loius XVIII in Ghent before having dinner. He spoke very little, but kept glancing up anxiously in the hope that some of his missing staff officers and friends might arrive. Eventually he collapsed into bed exhausted.
At 02:30 he was woken by a surgeon, David Hume who told him that his close friend and comrade Sir Alexander had died. Hume began listing the casualties of the day and Wellington burst into tears, before saying
[QUOTE] “thank God I don’t know what it is 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.” [END QUOTE]
This is true as Wellington had never lost a major battle he commanded and he actually had a close circle of aristocratic friends in the staff, a good number of whom died. As a commander he cultivated the mask of icy indifferent emotionless bravery, but underneath he was still a deeply feeling man. How far this extended to the common soldier is open to debate, but he was careful with his men’s lives and welfare to a degree that Napoleon wasn’t.
I think it is certain that a lot of men were feeling similar emotions in the British, Dutch and Hanoverian ranks. The Prussians seem to have been more interested in chasing the French and killing them. Blucher especially wanted to push on to Paris, skipping sleep, resupply or food for his men if it meant he could take the city. It is entirely possible he would have sacked it thoroughly or even burned it to the ground. Wellington wouldn’t be rushed though, as he later said to the Prussian liaison officer
[QUOTE] Do not press me on this point, for I tell you, it will not do. If you were better acquainted with the English army, its composition and its habits you would say the same. I cannot separate it from my tents and my supplies. My troops must be kept well supplied in camp, if order and discipline are to be maintained. It is better that I should arrive 2 days later in Paris than that discipline should be relaxed. [END QUOTE]
After receiving the news of the death of his friend and the casualty list, Wellington got up and began writing reports. His terse dispatch to London could almost sound like he lost the battle. He singled out a few officers for praise, including Sir Alexander. He was a bit less generous to the Earl of Uxbridge, Lord Henry Paget, than the man deserved given the amazing performance of the heavy cavalry, and the fact that he had his leg blown off by a cannon ball. Whether this is because of the lack of general discipline in the cavalry and the loss of control of the charge, or perhaps just Wellingtons personal style, or perhaps because the Earl had previously had an affair with Wellingtons sister in law, but we don’t know the exact reason. Still an initially furious Lady Uxbridge, was eventually consoled when the Pagets were elevated to the rank of Marquess of Anglesey. The name Paget will come up again and again in the Victorian era, so this is a family name to remember. I really wish I had time to do an episode on the Earl because he is a really, really interesting guy and he will appear in the podcast again and of course Wellington could be very sparse with his praise. The artillery were particularly badly served in terms of receiving laurels and praise. Many gunners felt extremely hard done by and overlooked after their hard service of the day.
As the Allies left the battlefield of Waterloo, its fame spread. Displaying typically ugly human behaviour, tourists descended on the battle field, eager to see the spot where Wellington triumphed and Napoleon the Corsican Ogre was defeated as they saw it. The field was not cleared in the way we would today. Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen took musket balls, clothes and badges, and even bone fragments as keepsakes to say they had been at Waterloo. Unearned privilege was on full display. John Croker bought a Legion D’Honour that had been looted from a dead French officer. Walter Scott himself obtained a cuirass riddled with holes. Lady Wailde took some ashes from the remains of dead guardsman at Hougoumont home with her in an envelope whilst a visiting reverend collected some skull fragments.
Still, for locals it was an opportunity.
[QUOTE] A mile beyond Waterloo, most tourists would leave their carriage at the village of Mont Saint Jean and perhaps engage a battlefield guide. A local man, whose house had been filled with wounded after the battle, found regular employment as such and professed a deep hatred of Napoleon “And all for one man” he would say. “Ce coquin!” He would tell his English clients of the sufferings he had witnessed, “nothing but sawing off legs and sawing off arms” Then he would repeat his refrain “Oh mon dieu! And all for one man” and, following Bonapartes capture and exile, he would add “Why did you not put him to death?” [END QUOTE]
“The Aftermath – O’Keeffe”
Why indeed? It was a common sentiment. The Prussians wanted to, and poetry was written about it.
The poet laureate Robert Southey of the period wrote
“For him alone had all this blood been shed,
Why had not vengeance struck the guilty head?
One man was cause of all this world of woe,
Ye had him and ye did not strike the blow”
This was wholly unfair of course, and even worse it is terrible poetry. As always the reality was much more complex. Napoleon alone was not responsible for all the bloodshed. The causes of any war are usually complex and multifaceted. Still, in the popular mind of the time, Napoleon was a tyrant and he started the war.
News gradually reached the courts of Europe. Naturally the British were amongst the first to get the news. Major Henry Percy carried Wellington’s famous dispatch. Carrying a dispatch was considered a mark of high honour. He also carried the captured Eagles. Remember Sergeant Ewart and his revenge for the death of his beloved commanding officer? He had taken the eagle in desperate fighting, cutting and killing in a frantic melee. Well now the Eagle would be paraded and displayed and cheered as a symbol of Britain chaining the Eagle. Ewart would naturally be given the full hero’s legend treatment, but he and the other unsightly veterans would not be coming home to a land fit for hero’s as the saying goes.
Soon the whole UK was soon abuzz with the news. The great war was finally over. Peace, freedom, and the natural order could return to Europe. Yet the problem with Freedom is that its definition is in the eye of the beholder. Freedom meant a very different thing to a conservative British philosopher than it did to an American founding father. Both would argue that they were representing the true strands of freedom, liberty and justice. But both might arrive at very different conclusions about what those terms really represented.
In France, and in the courts of Europe, decisions had to be made. To capture Napoelon? To kill him? To banish him? Should he be exiled again or be allowed to go to America? Would he somehow cling on and scrape an army together to defend France? If not, who would rule France now? Napoleon’s son? The Duc D’Orlean? Louis XVIII. Or would the country be broken up, with its territory gobble up by Prussia, Austria, Britain and Spain. To Minister Joseph Foche, the ruthless, self obsessed traitor who was chief of the secret police, it was clear that it had to be King Loius XVIII. France had to be a monarchy again and he, Foche, was the only man suited to well advise the king. Foche’s treason had been a big contributor to so many of the disasters in recent French history. Foche was a master manipulator and was confident that naïve republican patriots like the famous La Fayette would be easy to manage. He was already scheming to exercise total control over the chamber of deputies and then puppet master of France.
The equally treacherous and self obsessed Foreign Minister Talleyrand was also for a French monarchy. The various European powers though would need to be persuaded. After all, it was entirely possible they could sweep into France, break it up and share it between themselves. Blucher was talking wildly of horrific acts of revenge, burning Paris, and acts that might border on genocide. The British were less committed. Britain was already being swept by a wave of sentimentality. They had beaten Napoleon by themselves at Waterloo they felt. Surely such an act of near mythic triumph required them to be gracious victors. It would stain their honour to engage in reprisals or the execution of Napoleon or the destruction of Frane. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that they could just impose government on the French, and besides how would it look to history if they killed Napoleon? That would cheapen the victory. Many more far sighted British statesmen were deeply concerned with the idea of France being broken up. They didn’t want to hand ultimate power over the continent from France to Prussia or Russia.
The painter, Benjamin Haydon, probably expressed the sentiment that a lot of the British were feeling. Quoting again from “The Aftermath by O’Keeffe” where he is quoting Haydon.
[QUOTE] the Duke of Wellington had saved for this age the intellect of the world while had Napoleon triumphed we would have been brought back to barbarianism. [END QUOTE]
Still, the feeling was not universal in Britain. Many British had been pro-revolution and pro-Napoleon. Some had suffered under the British aristocracy. Others were enlightenment liberals or were general admirers of Napoleon.
Whether sympathetic, happy, or just anxious for news about relatives and friends who were in the conflict, Britain was swept up in a mania at the news. Full overblown sentiments were let free. Artwork and prosed tended to the fantastical. Good taste was forgotten. This will be very familiar when we move into the Victorian period. It was no longed a victory thanks to god and our soldiers. It became in my words, admittedly made up, but I think this is the right style of it “ a most marvellous event comparable only to Caesars triumph over the Gaul’s. Now as then, our troops did display such fortitude and vigour that notwithstanding the enemies utmost assertions and great excitement, they were turned back as the waves breaking against rock. Such was the courage on display that Mars himself must surely have graced our arms and added greater lustre to the already illustrious achievements of our noble banners.”
Yes I made that up, but it is really in keeping with how the style is going to develop. A good example is the Opera House in Covent Garden, who produce a piece of commemorative art and said [QUOTE] “A grand transparency, representing Britain succouring France, personified by an interesting female figure in a supplicant posture, attired in a robe covered in flour de lis; on her side stands the British Lion. A group of attributes, and above, with expanded wings, appears a figure of fame sounding the trumpet.” [END QUOTE]
IIf it sounds odd when we say Britain succouring France that’s not suckering like a sucker punch, it is succouring as in to give aid to France. The image being created here is that Britain came to France and helped her in her hour of need to free her from Napoleon, rather than being at war with France. This was positively restrained compared to the language that was used by the Morning Post Newspaper to celebrate its collection for the veterans reaching £100,000. Remember when listening to this quote that Plumb was slang for £100,000 and this was a colossal sum of money.
Hail Britain! Thy bounty, beyond all dispute,
Must with wonder strike other lands dumb;
When they see that thy heroes, as victory’s fruit,
Receive from thy kindness a plumb
A plumb for those who fought and bled,
Already they declare;
But some have confidently said
We’ll make that plumb a pair.
Ok, somethings to think about here. The first is that I hope you like this kind of overblown hyperbole because this is just going get more and more common as we go through the Victorian age. Language, ornate, over complicated and verbose is a Victorian trade mark. It can be delightful, baffling or tedious, but I do love it. So get used to it.
The second thing that perhaps leaps out at me is to wonder how much of that sum of money reached the genuine working class veterans, and how much was used effectively. I suspect it went through the filter of aristocratic monument building, then middle class worthy charities well before any trickled down to actually reach the veterans themselves. It is also worth noting that you have to say that piece of humour is not as funny and clever as the author wanted.
British feelings weren’t something that Foche would be able to simply ignore. If the British let the Prussians off the leash then France faced destruction. It wasn’t as if the British were historically friendly to France either. Centuries of continental war against the French made the two nations natural enemies and this would be an ideal opportunity to repay France for what Britain considered to be French aggression and unwarranted interference during the American War of Independence, when French help was instrumental in turning the tide of war in the Americans favour. This could be payback time. At the very least Foche and Talleyrand knew that Britain would be seeking to take advantage and territory from the defeated France surely. Wellington was now supreme commander in Europe and the new political order was in many ways up to him. As a natural conservative aristocrat he would look favourably on Louis XVIII being given power, but equally he was known to want to see a government that was acceptable to the French people, perhaps the Duc D’Orlean and it is unlikely that Wellington had a particularly high opinion of Louis XVIII in person. That wouldn’t remotely suit Foche. So playing up this British myth of a solo British triumph might actually be useful to Foche and Talleyrand. Greatness and generosity in victory would be quite helpful to them at this point.
Paris was in gossipy uproar. Whatever the press had been saying recently, their was a buzz in the air. Rumours circulated. The chambers went into emergency session. More rumours. That Prince Jerome had made a panicked return to Paris, liquidated his government stocks and fled, that there were only 200 Imperial Guard left and Napoleon had been killed. Everywhere the cry “The Prussians were coming.”
Regardless of the future, Napoleon remained technically emperor. He was in full flight to France, ahead of his army. This wasn’t to abandon them through cowardice. Napoleon was never a coward. He just had a bigger picture to focus on. Who would rule France and could France organise a defence. Staying with a chaotic mob would not help save the nation, and need saving it did. Sadly for the Emperor his personal baggage and then later his treasury wagon were looted by lucky Prussian troops, losing him a fortune. Worse, the loot included a list of French spies and many plans.
Nor was Napoleon the only considerable figure involved. There were a lot of Napoleonic loyalists who would still rally to the Emperor or his son. There were many revolutionaries like La Fayette who thought the overthrow of Napoleon would restore the republic. They were as deluded as the original assassins of Caesar at the fall of the Roman republic, but they still had a powerful voice in the French government. If Napoleon could rally them, perhaps a Republican resistance movement would threaten Foche’s plans for restoring the Monarchy. There were other powerful figures to consider. There was Grouchy with his retreating force almost untouched by battle. There were the brilliant Marshals Soult and Clausel, as well as Napoleon’s loyal brother in law Lucien.
Above all else though there was Marshal Davout. What would that icy, disciplined ,and ruthless man do? His loyalty to Napoleon had been beyond that of any other Marshal. He was Minister of War, and if he gathered an army to him, he could put anyone he wanted on the throne, or make Napoleon a unchallenged dictator. He would be an immensely dangerous enemy to the allied forces. He was arguably better than Napoleon at a tactical level and at least as good at the strategic and possibly even theatre levels. He had an enormous list of victories, some better than some of Napoleon’s. He had always drilled his men to maintain iron discipline no matter what. This was not a man to overlook or underestimate. Especially as he had a bitter hatred of Foche.
Finally on 21 June, after many twists and turns, the Emperor reached Paris. He refused the offer of a better carriage on arrival, sticking to a less noticeable one lent to him on the journey. By a less well know route, he entered the city.
I have previously said that it is unusual for a breakfast to make the history books, but Napoleon’s pre-Waterloo breakfast did. Well today, even more usually a bath is going to be crucial to Napoleon’s downfall.
It is sometimes on these strange curiosities that fate can hinge. The day before Napoleon entered Paris, it had been agreed by his generals that the Emperor had to go straight to the Chamber of Representatives, to inform them of everything, to make it clear that France as a nation was in danger, and that they should put aside any petty bad feeling and think only of helping Napoleon preserve the nation itself from utter ruin. This stirring address should come from Napoleon whilst still dressed in his army uniform, smeared with blood, his face blackened with smoke and dirt. He should tell them he was going to return to Belgium at the head of Grouchy’s men and they had to rally the nation and support him. Surely it would be impossible for them to say no to a man clearly fresh from battling for the existence of the French republic?
Yet despite agreeing to this plan, when he arrived, Napoleon decided to take a bath. His circle of ministers and generals gathered outside and had time to worry. Crucial time slipped away again as it did at Quatre Bras and early at Waterloo. Finally Napoleon emerged. Minister Carnot recommended a defence of Paris to give the for the consolidation of all French military forces from other areas, and then a mass counter attack. Others were less confident and asserted that only if Napoleon gained the confidence and support of the chamber of deputies could he continue. Marshal Davout was having none of this. He effectively urged Napoleon to become supreme military dictator for a short period, and move the government out of Paris. Foche immediately disagreed, saying he was sure, sure the government would give Napoleon everything he wanted during such an emergency, if the Emperor would only put himself in their hands. This was a breath taking piece of Chutzpa considering that Foche was busy secretly warning the chambers that Napoleon was planning on becoming a military dictator, and he had also secretly been priming La Fayette to bring matters to a head in the chambers. The Marquis De La Fayette had done wonderful things in support of the American revolution and is justly celebrated for those achievements, but in the arena of French politics he was utterly hopeless in comparison. He believed that Foche was working to save the republic from the military dictatorship of Napoleon. It is baffling why he would trust Foche, but it is also baffling how he could think that deposing Napoleon and effectively neutering the French army would be a good idea in the middle of an invasion.
Still, with the ideals of both revolutions in heart, La Fayette seemed to truly believe he was destined to lead France into a new age of Enlightenment. He rose to his feet in the chamber of deputies and gave a genuinely stirring speech. Graceful yet passionate and compelling. He also made a strong proposal of 5 articles. Art 2 was to have the Chambers in permanent session with any attempt to dissolve them being treason. The choice was now out of Napoleon’s hands. The government would neither dissolve nor leave Paris.
When he heard the news, Napoleon knew what it meant, saying
[QUOTE] I expected this. I should have dissolved those men before I left. It is finished. They will ruin France. [END QUOTE]
Foche’s secret plans had borne fruit. Marshal Davout now flatly refused to proceed with any military coup. He was unwilling to have his troops storm the Chamber, with the attendant loss of life. Before the articles were passed, he would have done, but the moment had passed. The time for Napoleon to seize power had drained away whilst he was in his bath.
Debate raged in the chambers, but it was now clear that they wanted Napoleon gone. Lucien gave a passionate defence of his brother, but La Fayette skilful rebuffed it.
Now the only real options left to Napoleon were to either rally the army and the mobs of Paris to him and kill the politicians in the chambers or to abdicate.
More than the Chamber of Deputies Napoleon understood the real situation
[QUOTE] It concerns me not. It concerns France. They want me to abdicate! Have they considered the inevitable consequences of my abdication? It is around me, around my name, that the army is gathered. Take me away and the army will dissolve. If I abdicate today, in 2 days time there will be no army. This army does not understand your subtleties. Do you think that metaphysical axioms, declarations of rights, parliamentary speeches will stop it from disbanding? [END QUOTE]
This seems to have been a constant failing of many revolutions and governments facing invasions; a constant obsession with speeches, declarations, proclamations and all the trappings without dealing with the often grim reality outside their bubble.
As Napoleon went on to say
[QUOTE] when the enemy is 25 leagues away, you do not overthrow your government with impunity. Do they think they can turn aside the foreigners with phrases. [END QUOTE]
That really cleaves to the heart of the problem. The politicians thought that the Allies were only interested in Napoleon and if he went, well then France could be left alone to form a peaceful republican government. Napoleon understood this to be delusional fantasy land thinking. The enemy wanted to conquer France. The real question was could they be stopped or if not, what kind of deal could France strike with them? If France kept a meaningful army in the field and showed determined resistance, then at least her post war bargaining position might be started from a firmer footing. Some of Napoleon’s Marshal’s like Suchet were already beginning to gain victories in other area’s.
The next day, after some wrangling and bitterness, Napoleon wrote his abdication in favour of his son Napoleon II. With it came Marshal Davouts calm situational report to the Chamber of Deputies on the armed forces. He noted that Marshal Grouchy was returning in good order with his 2 corp. Marshal Soult had gathered together 3,000 Imperial Guard and other line infantry. In all Marshal Davout felt he could put together a disciplined core force of around 60,000 men. As he said
[QUOTE] A strong barrier will be opposed to foreign invasion, and you will have an army sufficiently respectable to support your negotiations with an enemy who has proved that he does not always keep his promises with fidelity. [END QUOTE]
Foche must have had kittens at the mere thought of Marshal Davout as sole commander of French forces. After all, Davout was right. A strong army meant a strong negotiating hand for France and therefore less chance for Foche to get Louis XVIII not only back on the throne, but under his thumb. The Anglo Allied army had been badly battered at Waterloo, so its effective fighting strength was actually surprisingly low. I’ve seen figures of Wellington only have an effective strength of 50,000 at this stage. Worse for Foche, some of the politicians looked thoughtful. Perhaps the abdication had been premature. Maybe they should try Davout’s option. It must have gone almost without saying that Davout would immediately have Foche shot.
Luckily for Foche, but disastrously for France, Marshal Ney was about to intervene again. He had, in the words of Napoleon, ruined France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He was about to do it again. He leapt to gave a passionate rant about how the army was destroyed and further resistance was folly. He claimed he had seen its total destruction.
This simply wasn’t true. Ney had basically snapped under the intense pressure. He had betrayed Napoleon, then he had betrayed the King, then failed Napoleon, and had failed to find the hero’s death he wanted at Waterloo. Now he was close to raving.
Whatever his beliefs, reasons, or state of mind, the die was now firmly cast. The military resistance that Napoleon and the Marshals hoped for was no longer an option. Marshal Soult was relieved of his command, which was given to the less talented Grouchy, who would in turn report to Davout. Whilst Davout was given supreme military command , there was no prospect of further resistance. Paris was surrendered under the Convention of St Cloud. On 07 July 1815 the allies occupied Paris. The next day Loius XVIII was made king again.
Napoleon fell into lethargy. He had initially refused to leave the capital, trying to get himself appointed a general of the republic. He had spotted a vulnerability in the allied positions that he could counter attack. The government rebuffed him. There was no way in hell they would allow a reinvented Napoleon the Republican General to sweep in and save the day. So he loitered. His power ebbed away. He eventually left the capital and travelled south. His few friends were desperately urging him to make a run for it, to flee to the United States or to South America or even to the Ottoman Empire. Anywhere out of reach of the French government or the Allies. Napoleon seemed to change his mind constantly, even reaching out to Foche for all people for passports and permission to leave. Quite why he decided this was necessary was baffling. He could have used his loyalist troops and loyalists in the navy to force an escape. Needless to say Foche provided a lot of warm and encouraging words to Napoleon but no real passports or permission to leave.
Eventually on 15 July 1815 he decided to give himself up to Captain Maitland on the HMS Bellerophon and the Royal Navy and throw himself on England’s mercy. Captain Maitland and the Royal Navy were naturally delighted, and Napoleon became a celebrated figure on board ship. The British government was firm that Napoleon was not to be allowed to land in England. They worried that he would charm his way into the aristocracy and become a unexploded bomb. They might have been right. Instead, after much wrangling, and a good deal of pleading on his part, he was exiled to St Helena. This was a far cry from his much more comfortable exile on Elba, and his British jailers treated him appallingly. Whether he merited it or escaped a well deserved hanging depends very greatly on your view of the causes of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve tried hard to explain that reality is always a lot more complicated than the easy answers of popular culture.
Now though the first true world war was over. It had been fought across the continents of Europe, in the deserts of North Africa, on the high seas, and colonies of the great powers involving India, Africa, South and North America
This left France now, as it had been before the revolution, with the prospect of a useless monarchy that couldn’t address the challenges of the C19th. It would be a long time until France reclaimed her pre-eminence on the continent. For now the Allied Great Powers would settle the balance of power in Europe.
In the next episode or two we will discover how the great and the good would play with the lives of men as bubbles to suit their own visions. For a lot of brave Marshals, a day of reckoning was ahead as vengeful kings, princes and nobles sought payback for the constant humiliations, where men born to poverty rise to the top through sheer merit thereby exposing as false the claims of Kings and Aristocrats as being hollow. Marshal Ney would be executed after a show trial, Murat would meet a similar fate, whilst others went to more ugly deaths.
For now though we also say goodbye to what has been called the finest army that the British ever fielded. It isn’t quite accurate because the army of the Peninsular that Wellington commanded, was actually not in the main present at Waterloo. But when we look at the Napoleonic Wars in total, the British and allied army had performed incredibly under Wellington. Rough, tough, uncultured and largely uneducated. They looked shambolic and seemed to be officered by dandies, with a besetting alcohol problem. But to everyone’s surprise they had fought the French to standstill in Portugal, worked with the brilliant Spanish partisans to turn Spain in a graveyard for the French, expelled Napoleon from France. They had stood with allied troops and finally held off the last great Napoleonic army and the invincible Imperial Guard. It had been a long, hard war. Now though the army was about to march into history. They would be scattered in garrisons around the world, or sent home to see if there really was to be a land fit for heroes.
This is a crucial moment in British history because it really functions as a kind of creation myth for the nation in much the way that WW2 would go on to do for another generation. A British army of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh had fought together. A generation before it was touch and go if the English and Scots would be at war with each other. There was also the military disaster of the American War of Independence, a nadir in British military history, where the British displayed a level of ineptness that nearly broke their military reputation, with only some bright spots in the navy. The Napoleonic Wars changed everything. The Navy had seized control of basically the entire oceans on the planet. The British army had gone from a small, often defeat rabble to a pinnacle of triumph. They had gone toe to toe with the absolute best in Europe, which at that time probably meant the world. They might not have been better at strategy or clever manoeuvres but they had displayed a tough discipline that no one could believe. This meant that for the next century it became almost unthinkable that the British redcoat could suffer defeat as far as the British were concerned. For the Scots, the Highlanders had been newcomers to the British army. Distrusted and distrustful. Still loyal to their clan chiefs and with memories of the rising of 1745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie against the English crown. Yet now, they were admired. The fierce cries of “Scotland forever” had rung out during the desperate bayonet charges. The war cries of the Scots and the terrible, mighty, powerful sound of the pipes would now ring out across the world as the Highlanders and Lowlanders become a key part of the growing empire, and fierce warriors in the Victorian army. The Welsh also came out of Waterloo with a glowing reputation, as did the Irish, especially for the heroics of the 27th Inniskillen.
Fittingly a bronze solider of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Irish Dragoon, a English Grenadier and a Scottish Highlander stands next to the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park. All forged from captured French cannons. This was the birth of the united Victorian army
Britain would not see their like again. The soldiers of the future would be very different. Starting to be drawn from factories. Less well fed and with rickets and deformaties. Yet better educated with drink on the decline. With the birth of intense religion amongst the ranks. But for years to come many a soldier and sergeant in a desperate spot somewhere overseas would say “huh, this is nothin’ I ain’t running from this rabble; I was at Waterloo against Bonney and that was a proper fight.”Get in touch