For the past few months we have all been taken up with the commemoration of the Great War, from its outbreak in August to the Christmas Truce on the Western Front. No-one has any doubts about the relevance of this war to us today: many of us had relatives who fought in the war and doubtless we remember hearing them speak of their experiences. Received wisdom also links the outcome of the Great War directly with the origins of the Second World War and from there it is a short step to our world. But Waterloo? Two hundred years ago? It is well beyond the edge of human memory and so far from our times as to seem part of some other world: as L.P. Hartley rightly remarked, “the past is another country: they do things differently there.”
I want to suggest, however, that there are several compelling reasons for why Waterloo does still matter and the first is an idea which is very much with us in the commemorations of the Great War: remembrance. What we remember about those who died in war is that they sacrificed all they had for their country and what it stood for. “For your tomorrow, we gave our today”. In June 1815, Britain and its colonies overseas, including what was then British North America, had been at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with one short break, since February 1793 – as long as from us now to the beginning of the Bosnian War. Every other major nation in Europe – Austria, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, Portugal and Spain – had at times fought against France but all had also at some point been either allied to France or been neutral, or else had been beaten by the French. Only Britain had been the implacable enemy of French absolutism, only Britain had stood against the ambitions of Napoleon for the domination of Europe. The struggle had become a war of survival, for only one of the two enemies would emerge with its territory, integrity, values and system of government intact; it would be winner take all.
As well as fielding the world’s greatest navy, Britain kept armies in the field throughout the war but also expended huge amounts of money, earned through trade, on financing the various coalitions against the French, the last of which finally brought Napoleon to his ruin. That alone is worthy of remembrance, but on a personal level, the war came down, as wars always do, to the willingness of soldiers and sailors to give their lives for their cause. Waterloo may not have been the greatest battle of the French Wars, but it was by far the largest in which a British Army took part and its casualties – 17,000 British and allies, 7,000 Prussians and 41,000 French killed, wounded and missing – left a folk memory in Britain that lasted until 1914. The men who died at Waterloo, therefore, made no less a sacrifice, in no less worthy a cause, than those who died in more recent wars. The passing of time cannot diminish the quality, nor the magnitude of that sacrifice. Our ancestors understood this perhaps better than we do. 2015 marks another anniversary, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. After that campaign, King Henry V endowed All Souls College, Oxford, where masses would be said for ever for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed of Agincourt.
The second reason that Waterloo matters is that it really was a decisive battle. This is a much abused and much misunderstood term; indeed because of the nature of complex, modern war – be it on a dispersed conventional battlefield or in the context of an irregular, insurgent campaign – the idea of a single battle realising a decision has become hard to accept; although one might ask the Georgians for a view. Battles have got steadily longer and steadily bigger as the full effects of the industrial and technological revolutions has expanded the range of weapons, our communications, our ability to see the battle-space, the size of armies, and the logistics and transportation available to put them into the field and keep them there. No battle has been confined to a single day, as it was at Waterloo, since Sedan in 1871 and we have therefore come to think in terms of decisive conditions being created in order to conclude a campaign such as that in Iraq. Before 1870, however, a battle could be decisive, in one of two ways. First, it could tip a campaign in favour of one protagonist, so that the outcome was never again in doubt. In this class belong battles like Gettysburg and Vicksburg, or Dien Bien Phu. Secondly, a battle could be decisive in that it brought to a close one period of warfare, and of history, and ushered in a new era. Waterloo is a prime example of this. But if it was decisive, what did the decision achieve? In the short term, monarchical government returned almost everywhere, except in Britain. Repression mounted in Russia and Austria and fledgling democracies were smothered. In the medium term, however, the revolutions of 1830 and then of 1848 against this revival of the ancient regime began the long, slow, process of establishing liberal democracies everywhere which came to fruition after the Great War. Waterloo, and the Congress of Vienna which was in progress at the same time, did not, however, end war in Europe: Spain exploded almost at once; France in due course fought Russia – with Britain – and Austria; Italy’s unification was a violent affair; and the rising power of Europe for the next century, Prussia, fought Denmark, Austria and France, the latter struggle ending at Sedan, where, as at Waterloo, a Prussian Army beat a French Army under Napoleon’s successor and in consequence established a unified, if federal, German state. France and Germany would have to fight each other twice more, with ruinous consequences, before the menace of war in Europe could be allayed.
The third reason why Waterloo matters lies in something it did not achieve, and this was the demolition of Napoleon’s military reputation. When one looks at the curriculum for military history at the British Army Staff College in 1913 – and indeed its equivalent in the USA, the Command and General Staff College – one is struck by the emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War, in spite of the more recent example of the sequence of wars in Europe between Prussia and her rivals. The dominance of Napoleon was marked, and in France, probably amounted more to worship than mere dominance. Every General wanted to be him; to crush his enemy’s army, march into his capital, and thus attain the goal of decisive victory. This elusive ideal has persisted right down to the present. What does not seem to have dawned on those responsible for teaching the military class of the future was the simple fact that that, in the end, Napoleon lost. Of course, Napoleon himself, and his many admirers later, did all they could to disguise this. It was Basil Liddell Hart who reminded the world of the uncomfortable truth that “it is as well to remember that St Helena became his destination.” To get him there took those twenty years of ruinous war – mainly against poorly coordinated coalitions, inefficient armies, and elderly, second-rate Generals. Faced with this sort of opposition, Napoleon did not have to be faultless; he just had to be better than the other side. Given this sort of opposition, and given the edge that superior French organization and a unified command brought, it is not surprising that the legend grew to the size it did.
Because of this legend, the evolution of the nature of modern warfare over the next century and more became obscured. European Armies after Napoleon were almost invariably large organizations raised through conscription; and the full impact of the industrial revolution – which was not felt until after 1815 – equipped them with weapons far closer to those of today’s battlefield than of Waterloo. Aircraft, the railway, the telephone and telegraph, the steam and petrol engines, smokeless powder, breach loaders and repeating weapons were all in place by 1914. It is of course true that military technologies do not advance in complete capability leaps: armies do not replace all their weaponry and equipment in one turn so that cutting edge technologies and legacy systems continue to co-exist, and this gradual process of technical innovation to an extent obscures tactical or operational innovation. But there is, in warfare, a relationship between the introduction of new technologies, and the employment and deployment of troops. This relationship is not constant, and needs careful and frequent revision. When it is not attended to, trouble follows. Thus by the American Civil War, although the armies were equipped with powerful, rifled muskets and heavy artillery, and could be moved by rail, the tactics were still those of Waterloo. The results, for Generals seeking the Napoleonic grail of the decisive battle, were the casualty rates of battles like Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg; and the acceleration of trench warfare. One can argue that the same process continued through the Franco-Prussian war, the early stages of the South African War, and the first four months of the Great War, which cost the French Army 800,000 casualties. It was not until 1918 that this relationship was adjusted – and Blitzkrieg was born. Even then, the spirit of Napoleon still lived.
Today, armies still operate within what is described as a Napoleonic staff model, and a corps structure, at a time when once again, the employment-technology relationship is shifting. The revolution in information should mean that the staffs of Generals are organized in a way that cuts across traditional divisions in order to provide superior (not necessarily faster) information, and thus produce superior decisions. The most likely opponents of western Generalship today are not states, but non-state groupings, whose command structure, as far as they can be said to have one, operates in the virtual realm. Bringing an army corps into action may succeed in taking ground, but as the Israelis discovered in South Lebanon and the Coalition in Afghanistan, the action is not necessarily going to be decisive. But the focus on destroying an enemy force as the decisive act remains. This is, however, the wrong lesson to draw from Napoleon’s legacy in the context of modern warfare. Napoleon may have been successful on many – but by no means all – his battlefields; and he may have been a master of campaigning. However in strategic terms he was a failure. His biggest strategic failure was in leaving Elba and returning to France: the campaign of Waterloo and the war of which it formed part, brought on by Napoleon with a weakened France against the whole might of a united Europe, was lost before ever it started. Perhaps those who now threaten Europe, both from within and without, might reflect on that.