Great claims have been made as to the legacy of the Battle of Waterloo; but it is not as clear cut as many may claim; for it certainly did not crush all French opposition in a single blow; it did not augur in a century of enduring peace and prosperity across Europe; nor can it claim to have permanently re-established the monarchical system in Europe. Therefore after all the glory, the death and suffering caused on that battlefield, what were its real long term legacies?
For the people living in the vicinity of Waterloo, the utter destruction of the land and of their homes was devastating to their lives, but time soon healed the wounds on the landscape and the abandoned equipment scattered across the battlefields became a virtual treasure trove for the locals as the field of Waterloo was soon at the top of every travellers ‘must see’ list during a sojourn in Belgium. Numbers lived for years selling relics of the battle or became guides to the battlefield as the bloody fields instantly became a top tourist attraction. Every poet and writer in Europe had to visit to witness the scenes of devastation before penning their impressions and publishing to an eager audience, hungry for every new edition.
Perhaps for the allies, the battles’ most significant achievement was to cause a radical change in attitudes towards France and its inherent guilt in supporting the ambitions of Napoleon and the insatiable hunger for ‘La Gloire’. At the time of Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, the allied sovereigns did not enthusiastically restore Louis to the throne of France, but allowed the French (who were cleverly manipulated by the machinations of the royalists) to declare for Louis themselves. The allied armies marched into Paris, merely as a show of support and solidarity with Louis; no reparations were claimed and the integrity of French territory was allowed to remain; France was then rapidly evacuated of all allied troops, allowing Louis to be seen to govern France independently.
This lenient attitude was certainly missing when the allies marched into Paris for the second time a year later. The Prussians particularly burned for revenge and Marshal Blucher unilaterally ordered the destruction of monuments erected to glorify the defeats inflicted upon his country – only prevented from doing so by the Duke of Wellington placing British sentries at these sites. This time, all of the allies agreed that France must pay in the form of war reparations for the devastation the French armies had inflicted across Europe and an Army of Occupation was to remain to ensure that France could not rise again to threaten the peace of the continent.
The situation was confused as the allies considered France both as an ally – in supporting Louis’ accession – and as their greatest enemy and the instigator of war, who could not be trusted to simply lick its wounds and take its punishment without violent reaction. The allied sovereigns and the diplomats of the great nations of Europe descended upon Paris to discuss these issues alongside the ratification of all the treaties enacted by the great Congress of Vienna.
But distrust was rife; Napoleon on his arrival in Paris in 1815, had not failed to publish the damning evidence – stupidly left in the government papers – of the secret treaty binding France, Austria and Britain against the conceived threat from a resurgent Russia and Prussia. Beneath the surface, the allies deeply suspected each other’s real aims and motives; not unlike the situation of the allies in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.
The situation was further complicated by Alexander of Russia, who had now embarked upon a crusade as part of his increasing personal fascination with religion and mysticism. He now viewed his ordained role to be that akin to the policeman of Europe and he drove – by dint of personal pressure – the European sovereigns to sign up to the Treaty of Holy Alliance on 26 September 1815, by which:-
‘They solemnly declare that the present Act has no other object than to publish, in the face of the whole world, their fixed resolution, both in the administration of their respective states, and in their political relations with every other government, to take for their sole guide the precepts of that Holy religion, namely, the precepts of justice, Christian charity, and peace, which, far from being applicable only to private concerns, must have an immediate influence on the councils of princes, and guide all their steps, as being the only means of consolidating human institutions and remedying their imperfections’.
This attempt to ensure that all governments in Europe enshrined Christian values as the core of all their policies, both internal and external, and that all differences between states would be dealt with by conference, rather than war, augured in the period known to historians as the ‘Concert of Europe’. Politicians marched across Europe from congress to congress just like the marauding armies they sought to eradicate. From Paris they moved to Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, Carlsbad 1819, and Verona in 1822. In time, all of the states of Europe signed up to this Holy Alliance; with the exception of Britain – Castlereagh neatly sidestepping the issue by claiming that he could not sign without parliamentary acquiescence, something he never got round to asking for – Turkey and the Pope on religious grounds – the latter refusing to treat with Protestant states.
But France, the one common enemy, did not engender discord; all nations now agreed that the French must pay for their deprivations. The Louvre, crammed with the richest pickings, the prized possessions plundered by Napoleon from every conquered state in Europe, was emptied without ceremony and the antiquities returned. The four bronze horses to Venice; the Apollo Belvedere to the Vatican; the Venus de Medici to Florence and so on; hundreds of such trophies were packed up and transported home under armed guard directly in the face of the Parisians, causing great tension in the city.
Finally on 20 November 1815 the Second treaty of Paris was signed by the allies and set the level of reparations to be paid. Primarily, a ‘Quadruple Alliance’ was agreed, whereby Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia agreed to stand in unity against the threat of renewed war from France – this was not to be a balance of power, more a unity of power to stop any one country instigating a reoccurrence of war within Europe, but Britain made it clear that this was no Holy Alliance. France was to be stripped of its conquered territories which had been subsumed within its boundaries and France would return to its borders as of 1790; and thus lost half a million inhabitants from a large area stretching from Beaumont to Mariembourg to the King of the Netherlands, Saarbrucken and Saarlouis to Prussia, Landau to Bavaria and Savoy to the King of Sardinia, the latter being the only area to return to France in the ensuing two centuries; and an ‘Army of Occupation’ some 150,000 strong commanded by the Duke of Wellington.
France was this time left in no doubt that she had lost the war, but in a perverse way this did achieve some form of national unity as all of the disparate elements found a common enemy in the guise of foreign occupation. It therefore gave some breathing space for Louis in which he could attempt to heal wounds and provide the country with a stable government.
However, as with all great wars, demobilisation of these huge military forces is necessarily rapid and economically ruinous, causing stagnation, if not depression, as the returning men found the factories not hiring, but instead laying off workers, as demand for their goods slumped. The economic outlook was not improved by a run of poor summers – the year 1816 is still known by the epithet of ‘the year with no summer’ – and the resultant bad harvests drove food prices sky high. Unsurprisingly, internal unrest became a major problem for many governments but none more so than the British. Britain had gained much by the war, it had gained numerous spice rich islands and strategic territories to bolster its burgeoning empire. Dominance of the world’s oceans was the cornerstone allowing construction of this empire, a direct legacy of the Royal Navy’s dominance in these wars. The states of mainland Europe in comparison looked within the continent to increase their influence and power; their belated attempts to gain territory and the subsequent scramble for Africa had given Britain too long to build an unassailable lead in the race for empire.
At Aix la Chapelle, after three years of foreign occupation, France agreed to complete the payment of the reparations and the allies agreed to evacuate France of all of their troops. This was only accomplished by dint of the superb negotiating skills of the Duke of Wellington, who ensured that all the financial contracts were settled on time and all of the troops had vacated French territory by the agreed date. France was then allowed a seat as a fifth great power at all future conferences, but mistrust did not allow of a formal Quintuple Alliance.
The tectonic plates of Europe continued to re-adjust their positions and the continent lurched from crisis to crisis. The clamour for social reform and political liberties caused major unrest in Britain and a revolution in Spain, which caused France – with the agreement of the great powers – to march into Spain in 1823 to reinstate the king’s absolute power. Countries formed by the Congress of Vienna continued their uneasy paths but Greece revolted from the Turks; in 1830 there were revolutions in Belgium, France and Poland and in 1848 during ‘The Spring of Nations’ there were major revolutions in Germany, France, Austria and Italy. However, the congress system held and these localised affairs were effectively prevented from escalating into another pan European conflict by dialogue and negotiation.
But by the dawn of the second half of the century, the politics of Europe were emerging into two strong and diametrically opposed factions and larger scale warfare began to emerge within Europe once more. The Crimea, the Austro-Prussian, Franco-Prussian and Russo-Turkish wars followed each other, but still the desire to negotiate to maintain the overall peace of Europe by generally keeping the disputes localised did succeed in preventing these conflicts from engulfing Europe.
It was only in 1914, some 99 years after the Battle of Waterloo, that the Congress system finally collapsed when Britain proposed a Congress and Austro-Hungary and Germany refused to attend; the resultant conflict left a scar on Europe that has still not been expunged. This war is now known to us as the ‘Great War’, an epithet that everyone before 1914 had previously used to describe the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars which culminated so poignantly on the field of Waterloo.
The influence of the battle upon all aspects of life was also immense and Waterloo is now completely immersed in popular culture. The phrase ‘to meet one’s Waterloo’ has entered the English language as a statement signifying a great test with a final and decisive outcome, resulting in abject failure.
At least 46 towns and cities across the world are also named Waterloo, many of which, not surprisingly, are to be found in the ex colonies, but perhaps more surprisingly, more than anywhere else by far, in the United States of America. Train stations, bridges, pubs and squares named Waterloo abound.
The battle has often been pivotal to the story line of many subsequent novels and films, the muse for many a poet, and the shelves of high street book shops are never without one or two new versions of the battle (this author embraces the paradox wholeheartedly!). It has also been the inspiration for music, from tunes for bagpipes to pop songs, who can ever forget Abba’s version which won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974?
This is not to trivialize the immense amount of pain and suffering caused at Waterloo, but it illustrates how it’s very name influenced the world and how much it still impinges on our lives today.
As we arrive at the bi-centennial of this historic battle the nations of Europe which fought as foes that day need to forget these old sores and celebrate together; recognising that it did force Europe to acknowledge that it must find a new path of reconciliation and accord. This road has been far from smooth, but each time it has failed, a greater understanding of the need for the European states to work more closely together has emerged from the ashes.
This is the true lesson of Waterloo…