Waterloo


By: Liza T. Powers

"Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won." - Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

It is the story of the fall of Napoleon, one of the most admired yet criticized figures of all time. The story of Waterloo is more than a story of a battle or a story of one man's defeat. It is the story of the first defeat of Revolutionary France and the crippling of the French nation. It also set the stage for the rise of Great Britain and the Victorian Age.

In March of 1815, Napoleon had fled Elba and landed at Cannes. On the 20th of March, he entered Paris while Louis XVIII fled. Due to that course of action, Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia formed an alliance to ensure Napoleon's destruction. Each party agreed to commit 150,000 men to the campaign in order to overwhelm Napoleon in numbers. When Wellington's Anglo- Dutch army and Napoleon's army met, both were ill- prepared. Though the Duke ofWellington had the best force, Napoleon's artillery was more modern and sophisticated.

On June 18, 1815 at noon, Napoleon and 72,000 of his men attacked Wellington and 68,000 men in the village of Waterloo, nine miles south of Brussels. It was the final act of the Hundred Days Campaign or the finale to the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had recently beaten the Prussians at the battle of Ligny and intended to defeat Wellington at Waterloo to open the way to Brussels.

By four in the afternoon, the French had pushed Wellington's army back even though they had heavily resisted. The French cavalry had attacked the Anglo- Dutch army in the center of their positions. Napoleon, worried about the Prussians attacking, did not send the Imperial guards to support the cavalry's attack on the British. That cost him victory. The cavalry could not penetrate the British squares.

The Prussians had arrived around one that afternoon, but Gneisenau had delayed Prussia's entry into the battle until he was certain the British would not disengage. By four, they had become entangled in the conflict. Napoleon again tried to break Wellington's line, sometimes referred to as the "thin red line," with the Imperial Guard. That time, he did not instruct the cavalry to support the Guard. Again, he failed. The Guard backed off and Wellington counterattacked. The French could not handle Wellington's men any more. A complete Allied victory resulted. The Allies lost 15,000 men and the French lost 25,000 in the conflict. Waterloo marked the final defeat for Napoleon. The event led to the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in France. The power structure of Europe changed with the Battle of Waterloo and peace between the nations would remain until 1914.

The 1971 film Waterloo directed by Sergei Bondarchuk starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. The movie portrayed the battle as accurately as possible, developed strong characters in Wellington and Napoleon, and brilliantly handled the gritty reality of war.

Watching the film, the viewer gets a sense that Wellington and Napoleon have a rugged admiration for each other. Both mutually respect and fear the other as great and as their equal. Wellington represents a true gentleman of the time, who lives and fights by the code of a gentleman. For example, he does not stop the Duchess of Richmond's ball in the face of the threat of Napoleon but asks that the men continue for the sake of the ladies. He also represents the aristocracy. He is admired by the nobility and the upper echelons of society. Yet, even Wellington, who is well liked, fears the battle and fears the possibility of losing. He carries the weight of knowing Napoleon must be stopped, and he realizes his army is the only means to do so. For a more in-depth look at Wellington, read Wellington: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert and On Wellington: The Duke and His Art of War by Jac Welly.

Napoleon's character is developed even more than that of Wellington. The film begins with his first defeat, in which he is exiled to the Island of Elba. He struggled within himself because he did not want to surrender. His character will not allow him to be defeated. From the beginning, the viewer sees that Napoleon's men love him. Napoleon himself, when hesitating to resign, says to the other officers, "France will follow me to the stars, if I give her another victory." The viewer also sees that his motivation for conquering Europe is to give his son, his heir, a throne. Though seen as a tyrannical despot who needs stopping, Napoleon has humanistic features that the viewer can relate to himself. While watching the film, the viewer can see the mind of a genius. His voice-overs show that Napoleon is always thinking and strategizing. He also exhibits a large amount of fear about losing, something his men can not see. To study more about Napoleon, a good source is The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and His Guard: A Study in Leadership by Henry Lachougue.

Another merit of the film is its depiction of the battle. It shows the society ball that most officers of the British army attend. The officers seem self-confident that they will beat Napoleon. Most, especially the younger officers, do not think of the possibility that they may be killed in the process. While in battle, the director of Waterloo has the music that they danced to at the ball playing in the background. The viewer can truly appreciate the dichotomy of the carefree feeling at the ball and the urgent emotions of survival erupting as the battle ensues. The film also follows the strategies both sides used in the battle, and the viewer sees an accurate portrayal of actual events. There are many great books on the Battle of Waterloo. Two of the most popular are The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo by Gregor Dallas and Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807-1815 by Roy Muir.

For more information, there are several websites that explore the actual battlefield of Waterloo, including pictures of monuments on the field, the landscape, battle paintings, and a brief monograph on Napoleon's rise to power. The Battle of Waterloo signaled the close of the Enlightenment Era and the beginning of the Victorian Age. Though the film Waterloo does not aptly describe that, the thoughtful viewer can sense a shift of power in Europe.