With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Did Waterloo Really Matter?

Five thousand re-enactors, 300 horses, 100 cannon and more than a hundred thousand spectators are expected at tomorrow’s reconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo, while France and Belgium have been sparring over a 2.5 Euro coin, issued in Belgium and commemorating the event.

In the United States, most people know that Napoleon Bonaparte fought and lost at Waterloo, but not much more.

Why are Europeans still getting excited about a battle that took place two hundred years ago, and did the outcome at Waterloo really matter?

The Battle of Waterloo is considered one of those epic engagements that altered the course of history, like the Battles of Yorktown and Gettysburg in the United States. Europeans had been fighting for almost 20 years when Napoleon decided to invade Russia in 1812 at the head of an army of half a million men. The invasion turned out to be a costly mistake and less than a year later, the Russian Tsar was able to repel the French and push the war westwards into Germany.

The largest engagement of the Napoleonic Wars was fought at Leipzig in 1813, where Napoleon’s defeat led to the collapse of his empire and the allied invasion of France.

In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated and Louis XVIII, a younger brother of the king beheaded by the revolutionaries in 1793, was restored to the throne. European leaders met in September in Vienna to celebrate their victory and to carve up the rest of Europe.

In a strange act of magnanimity, the Tsar sent Napoleon to the tiny island of Elba, off the coast of Italy; he even permitted Napoleon to keep his title as Emperor. But Napoleon became restless. At the end of February 1815, he left Elba with a small force of a thousand men and landed in the South of France in the adventure known in French as les Cent-Jours—the Hundred Days. He marched northwards to Paris unopposed, while King Louis XVIII fled to the city of Ghent in Belgium.

Napoleon sent separate peace offerings, specially adapted to each of the allied leaders, but to no avail. They issued a declaration from Vienna against his return on March 13, and signed a formal treaty to depose him on March 25. Each power then turned its retreating troops around for a colossal struggle. Russia and Austria were the farthest away but able to produce the largest armies. Each agreed to send from 150,000 to 200,000 troops against the French Emperor.

Thus, whatever had happened at Waterloo, Napoleon would soon have been opposed by an overwhelming number of hostile allied troops. So once again, why did Waterloo matter?

By April 1815, Austrian and Russian leaders, still meeting in Vienna, had decided to abandon Louis XVIII in favor of his younger cousin, the more flexible Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, or perhaps even in favor of a Regency on behalf of Napoleon’s son, the young Prince of Parma. The allied leaders felt that Louis had been too reliant on the returning émigrés during his short reign, had not been sympathetic enough to the needs of the army, and had badly mishandled the crisis created by the return of Napoleon.

Napoleon, meanwhile, was posing as a reformed constitutionalist. He cooperated with former French revolutionaries, who had been proscribed by Louis XVIII, and issued a new liberal constitution granting freedom of the press, abolition of the slave trade, and a national legislature with two houses. It was an epochal struggle for French hearts and minds.

Napoleon called for a mass public assembly of citizens to celebrate his return in late May, and shortly after this ceremony ended, marched the small force he had gathered of about 130,000 men directly to the Low Countries. His aim was to defeat the two allied armies—the British/Dutch/Hanoverian soldiers under Wellington and the Prussian and German troops under General Blücher—separately before Russian and Austrian forces could gather in full steam.

On the first two days of the campaign (June 15-16), the French won engagements at Charleroi, Quatre Bras and Ligny. But on June 18, they faced Wellington at Waterloo. Wellington had carefully examined the ground and prepared for the French attack. For Napoleon, it was vital that he rout the British and Prussian forces before the anticipated massive Austro-Russian onslaught. Unfortunately for him, he had sent part of his forces eastward in fruitless pursuit of the Prussians, the ground at Waterloo was too soggy for him to deploy his artillery to maximum effect, and the stubborn defensive squares formed by Wellington’s infantry would not budge despite repeated attacks. In the late afternoon, General Blücher and the Prussian forces arrived on the battlefield and Napoleon’s army was decimated.

So, what if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? He would have driven a wedge between the British and the Prussians, and forced Louis XVIII to flee ignominiously from nearby Ghent. Two possibilities would then have loomed.

Napoleon most likely would have faced a much larger Austro-Russian force and been defeated. In that case, the continental powers most likely would have placed the Duke of Orleans on the throne of France—obviating the need for the Revolution of 1830, and perhaps even preventing the Revolutions of 1848 and the Crimean War.

Or, somewhat less likely, the Russians and Austrians might have ended their forward march and scurried for a negotiated settlement with Napoleon. Whether Napoleon would have then stayed true to his new liberal colors, as he later claimed, or would have returned to his former aggressiveness, as the allied leaders suspected, is unclear, but the latter seems likely.

Wellington and Blücher’s victory over Napoleon gave the British and Prussians the upper hand—especially Wellington, as commander in chief. Wellington told the emissaries sent by the French legislature for negotiations that he would only agree to an armistice if they restored the King. Then—much against the instructions of Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary—Wellington invited the King to join his forces in their triumphant entry into France.

So, here is the significance of Waterloo. It was the first and last time that the two leading commanders of the age, Napoleon and Wellington (both born in 1769), faced one another on the battlefield. It meant that further slaughter was avoided. It was the final showdown between Britain and France, after centuries of rivalry. It meant that the territorial settlement concluded by the powers in Vienna was here to stay. It meant Napoleon would not remain on the throne of France or ever again threaten the European balance of power. It proved to be the last major battle involving all the great powers of Europe until 1914. And finally and most immediately, it gave the British the upper hand in the subsequent negotiations and ensured a second restoration of King Louis XVIII and the Bourbon dynasty. Ironically, this was the one part of the legacy of Waterloo that did not hold—fifteen years later, Louis’s younger brother Charles X was overthrown in the Revolution of 1830. He was replaced by a younger branch of the Bourbon family—Louis Philippe—the same man the Tsar would have placed on the French throne  if he, instead of Wellington, had been the victor over Napoleon in 1815.