Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Nearest Run Thing You Ever Saw in Your Life"

Last Friday marked the 195th anniversary of an event that was...well, not to sound too dramatic, but an event that marked the beginning of modern Europe. I'm talking about the Battle of Waterloo.

It was June 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, had been defeated in 1814 after running roughshod over most of Europe and sent into exile on the island of Elba...and had come back eight months later, determined to return to his former position. Everyone who was anyone in Europe was at the Congress of Vienna, where they were busy carving up the former French empire into bits based on who owed whom favors when Napoleon sailed from Elba on February 26 and landed in the south of France. By March 20 he was back in Paris, having retaken the country without firing a single shot. King Louis XVIII (brother of Louis XVI who had been guillotined in the Revolution) who had been restored to the throne after Napoleon's ouster, fled to Belgium (at this time still part of the Netherlands).

However, the crowned heads of Europe were not about to let Napoleon stay where he was and risk his reconquering Europe once again. The man who'd been most responsible for Napoleon's recent downfall, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, left Vienna, where he'd been head of the English delegation, and headed to Brussels, Belgium. It had been decided that the armies of Europe would hastily re-gather themselves and march on France on three fronts; English and Dutch and Prussian troops would take the northeast frontier in Belgium. It was thought that Napoleon might begin his defense of France there, and the guess proved correct: on June 15, while at a ball in Brussels given by the English Duchess of Richmond, the Duke of Wellington received word that Napoleon had crossed the border with his army and was marching toward the city.

The indecisive Battle of Quatre Bras, fought on June 16, ended in more or less a draw, and ensured that further battle would follow...which it did, two days later, near the small village of Waterloo south of Brussels. Noteworthy for readers of Nineteenteen is the age of many of the soldiers who fought in this battle: there wasn't time to gather the seasoned troops who'd fought with Wellington in Spain and Portugal (many of them had been deployed to fight in America in what we know as the War of 1812) and so thousands of youths enlisted to fill the void. Though legally 18 was the enlisting age, enlistees as young as fifteen were permitted, with a nod and a wink, to join up. Many of them never returned home; of the Allied (Dutch/Belgian, German, and British) troops, 23,000 of them British, one in four did not survive.

The battle itself was hell. It had poured the previous night and everyone was wet and miserable; indeed, Napoleon did not attack until nearly noon, waiting for the ground to dry so that his artillery pieces could be better manoeuvered. This delay favored the Allies; they were awaiting the arrival of reinforcements in the form of the Prussian army under General Blucher. Wellington's strategy was to simply stand in the way and not let Napoleon progress along the road to Brussels. This he did; General Blucher's arrival with the mass of his army early that evening enabled the combined Allied/Prussian army to go on the offensive, and by half-past eight, the French began to flee. Napoleon abdicated a second time on June 24, and the years of war were finally over.

This is, of course, the briefest outline of the Battle and the circumstances around it. If you're interested in getting deeper into it, I recommend two books: the first is An Infamous Army by (yes, really) Georgette Heyer. Don't laugh; it was used as a text at Sandhurst (Britain's West Point) to teach about the battle, so well-regarded was her account. The second is Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes--non-fiction, but as readable and lively as fiction.

Oh, and today's title? It's a quote from the Duke himself, who is supposed to have said it to describe the day's events.


M Birn said...

This is a great description of the battle. I've never investigated any details about this pivotal event.

One quick question - how did Napoleon leave Elba? Did he 'sneak away'? Where other powers involved? Obviously I need to do some more research - perhaps read the books you recommended.

Thanks for piquing my interest.

Marissa Doyle said...

He wasn't under guard per se--there was an English captain who was sort of his unofficial watchdog, but who kept getting bored and slipping over to Italy for some R and R. Napoleon had plenty of friends both on and off island, and while Capt. Campbell was away, they made their preparations, outfitted the few ships Napoleon had (Corsica is made up of several small islands in addition to the main one, and he used to like to visit them while he worked on his improvement projects for the island), and they set sail. They somehow managed to evade any English or other hostile ships over the two day sail to the south of France, and that was that. Napoleon had crazy good luck for most of his life--this was one of the times when it held. If you're interested, there's a pretty well-written and readable account of his escape called "The Escape from Elba: The Fall and Flight of Napoleon 1814-1815" by Norman McKenzie.

Tricia Tighe said...

Thanks for this synopsis of those events. I've never studied these battles and didn't even know that Waterloo was in Belgium.