Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners [cropped]

The bi-centennial of the Battle of Waterloo has been greeted by a deluge of media commentaries and official ‘commemorations’ loosely organised by the government-backed charity ‘Waterloo 200’. All sought to provide answers to the same set of questions that emerge whenever an anniversary like this occurs: what happened and why should we care?

The commemorations and commentators offered an accurate answer to the first, and easiest, question (spoiler alert: the French lost) but a fundamentally inadequate response to the second. The absence of any serious attempt to question the assumed importance of ‘great men’ and ‘great events’ in history represents a missed opportunity to engage the public in a broader debate about the dangers of learning lessons from the past in this manner.

The official remembrance ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral attracted members of the royal family, the Prime Minister and schoolchildren who were part of an educational programme under the auspices of ‘Waterloo 200’. Organisers took great pains to avoid the impression that this was an exercise in patriotic chest thumping, but did not shirk from an image of Waterloo as a landmark moment for British national identity that should be remembered positively.

At the site of the battlefield, a week-long series of commemorative events were received with a mixture of boredom and bewilderment by the British media. A firework and theatrical pageant named ‘Inferno’ offered a ‘poetic interpretation’ of the battle without a ‘victor or loser’. Prince Charles unveiled a memorial at Hougoumont Farm and oversaw a handshake between descendants of the three famous commanders – Blücher, Wellington and Napoleon – that one could be forgiven for thinking was more of a testament to the survival instincts of the European aristocracy than a symbol of enduring European friendship.

All of this, however, was a side-show to the main event: a re-enactment of the battle by 5,000 costumed ‘actors’. Confronted with this spectacle, most journalists seemed unsure as to whether the participants should be described in the lightly mocking tone normally reserved for groups of eccentric hobbyists, or, because this was a commemoration of a significant national event, they should approach the subject with more reverence.[1] When the latter was attempted it resembled an inadvertent exercise in bathos – one can hardly expect otherwise when interviewing a Californian member of the 2nd Battalion 95th Rifles.

The sense that Waterloo’s importance was self-evident and that people should care pervaded media coverage. Such commemorations were reported as if they demonstrated all there was to know about Waterloo. This was military history with the meaning stripped out, reduced to images of ‘real people’ in a field playing with guns, isolated statistics about casualties, a solemn ceremony, gurning politicians and aristocrats, men and women in uniform, men and women in hats. [2]

It was an empty shell of a commemoration and nature abhors a vacuum. Into this space poured a legion of commentators with their own take on why we should care. The central focus of this debate was Waterloo’s place as a ‘watershed’ for Britain and Europe.

Those of a neoliberal inclination hailed the battle as the beginning of a period in which Britain dominated the seas, opened up the world and oversaw an unprecedented period of European peace: the long nineteenth century, the ‘British century’.

This view is nothing more or less than an updated version of the Whig school of history which sees the last three centuries, if not longer, as a slow march of progress towards political and economic liberalism. Indeed, the government-sanctioned ‘Waterloo 200’ project seized the opportunity to align with the Whiggish anniversary of Magna Carta’s signing. Great Britain, it is claimed, fought at Waterloo to resist the ‘tyranny of imposed regimes’ and preserve the ‘personal liberties’ enshrined in what was then a 600 year old document.

This framing of Waterloo as a clash of civilisations, between liberalism and authoritarianism, relies upon an inaccurate conception of Napoleonic France as hopelessly tyrannical and of Georgian Britain as liberal and reformist in temperament, that was thankfully ignored by most journalists – though not by some politicians.[3] Here the biography and TV series by Andrew Roberts, in which a borderline liberal Napoleon is rescued from the ignominy of Waterloo, may have had a moderating influence on columnists.[4]

Most commentators avoided this Anglo-centric, Whig version of Waterloo only to fall back on a more European-friendly version. Drawing heavily on the work of Paul W. Schroeder,[5] the real impact of Waterloo was now, we were told, to be found in the Congress of Vienna and the ‘new system of collective security’, forged under British supervision, that ensured ‘100 years of peace’ and ‘international cooperation’.[6] In this equally Whiggish interpretation one can see in the allied forces at Waterloo the origins of NATO, the European Union and even the European Defence Force.[7]

This liberal hijacking of both Waterloo and Napoleon inspired derision from those who see the long nineteenth century ‘peace’ as one travesty of social justice after another – echoing left-wing criticisms of the European ‘project’.[8]

Waterloo’s bi-centenary could have been an opportunity to learn about the dangers of reading too much into historical events. Indeed, just fifty years after Waterloo, British soldiers were dying side-by-side with those of Napoleonic France in a war against Russia.

The schoolchildren at the St. Paul’s service, urged to consider the meaning of Waterloo, would do well to recall Prince Andrei Bolkonsky’s thoughts as he lay dying at the battle of Austerlitz – another ‘watershed’ moment in history that many believed would ensure the French domination of Europe:


‘It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing – that’s all there is.’[9]



[1]    See, for example ‘Waterloo 2015: meet the re-enactment army’, Daily Telegraph

[2]    Given that George Osborne, who secured funding for the commemorations, is a battlefield enthusiast himself, this is hardly surprising. James Forsythe, ‘Meeting George Osborne at Waterloo’, Spectator (10 May 2014)

[3]    Daniel Hannan MEP, ‘Any Questions’, BBC Radio 4 (12.6.2015); Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Politics Home (26.4.2015)

[4]    Andrew Roberts, ‘Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon Never Lost at Waterloo’, The Smithsonian (June 2015)

[5]    Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Clarendon Press: 1994)

[6]    Editorial du Monde, ‘Britain beware, «Brexit» could be your Waterloo!‘, Le Monde (18.6.2015) ; ‘Battle of Waterloo memorial unveiled by Prince Charles’, BBC News (17.6.2015) ; Caroline Davies, ‘Prince of Wales unveils Waterloo memorial ‘, The Guardian (17.6.2015)

[7]    Mark Urban, ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two (17.6.2015)

[8]    Martin Kettle, ‘ Napoleon’s dream died at Waterloo – and so did that of British democrats’, The Guardian (17.6.2015); Mark Steel, ‘The Battle of Waterloo: It was lucky the British won, as they had no plans to build an annoying empire‘, The Independent (18.6.2015)

[9]    Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book III: 1805, ch. xvi.


Wilfred Jack Rhoden is a historian of nineteenth-century Britain and France with a particular focus on political caricature and the relationship between the satirical press, political culture and national identity. He is the co-editor and contributor to Poetry, Politics and Pictures: Culture and Identity in Europe, 1840-1914 (Peter Lang, 2013).


Image Source: Sir David Wilkie, The Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch, 1822 . Wikicommons

Tags : anniversariesfrench military defeatsmilitary historypublic historyre-enactmentsWaterloo
Wilfred Jack Rhoden

The author Wilfred Jack Rhoden


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