Why Wellington Lost the Battle of Memory

On a beautiful June day in 2014, I travelled from Brussels to Waterloo by train. For a long time, I longed to walk the battlefield where one of my favorite military heroes, Arthur Wellesley, earned his laurels. Before ascending the Lion’s Mound with my family, I wanted to visit and spend time at Wellington’s HQ, the iconic house where the famous British warlord spent the night before and after the battle.

Being a huge booklover, I expected to leave with a few tomes about the Iron Duke under my arms. Instead, I was greeted by a bleak, quasi non-existential array of books of the said subject adorning the bookshelves. The only titles offered were of Napoleon and his Marshals. All I could come out with was a Christmas ornament at the effigy of the famous British soldier. An affront, in my humble opinion. I understand why so many people are fascinated and enthralled by the Little Corporal, but to the point of overshadowing his victorious nemesis at the very place where Wellington tried to snatch a few hours of rest? Where he let one of his subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Gordon die in his camp bed after being mortally wounded during the battle? This sad state of affairs has haunted me for several years now.

That was until I received a copy of the book Waterloo, written by the renowned British historian Alan Forrest, which is part of the Great Battles series published by The Folio Society (the book was originally published in 2015 by Oxford University Press). I have to admit that I regret not having read it before. Not only does it answer my long-lasting question, but it is also written by a masterful author. After all, who would not enjoy reading a passage about Field Marshal Blücher treating a concussion “[…] with an interesting mixture of garlic and schnapps”? And Alan Forrest even makes a mention of my beloved “Cantons de l’Est” (Eastern Townships, in Quebec), where I live.

More seriously, Alan Forrest first tells the reader that Waterloo was a political victory for Wellington and the United Kingdom, serving to plaster the cracks in British national identity and unity, notably in Scotland. The outcome of what happened on 18 June 1815 on the “Morne Plaine” was used to flatter the legendary military ethos of the Scottish people. Having lived for several months in the land of my ancestors, I visited quite a few Regimental Museums and I can attest that the legacy of Waterloo is still extremely vibrant in Caledonia.

Second, the military confrontation in Belgium was not a crucial victory, in the sense that “even if he had won at Waterloo, Napoleon would surely have lost the war, and victory would have provided him with only the briefest of respites.” Furthermore, “Britain already had its hero from the Napoleonic Wars, an unambiguous figure on whom all could agree, in the person of Horatio Nelson. It did not need Wellington […].” The subject of my admiration arrived too late, 10 years after the battle of Cape Trafalgar and did not serve in the right branch of the British Armed Forces. History can be brutal.

Thirdly, there was a question of character. While Napoleon draped himself in the “cult of a heroic French defeat”, his British opponent was the opposite. “Weariness and sadness for the loss of his companions-in-arms made it impossible for him to exult, though his apparent lack of excitement at the scale of his victory was widely assumed to stem from a cold aloofness that would make him a hard man to like and a somewhat ambivalent national hero.” Napoleon did not lose sleep over the death of soldiers, because that was their ultimate duty in war. Wellington was made of a different fabric.

Napoleon could not defeat the British squares and the Prussian reinforcements on the battlefield on that fateful summer day, but he etched himself in the memory – and affection – of future generations. While I will probably never fully embrace this outcome at Waterloo – contributing to my desire to read even more about Wellington – I came to understand what Winston Churchill meant when he said that history would be kind towards him because he would write it. The commander of the British troops would have needed to learn how to become a tragic hero and be able to count on better advocates.

Alan Forrest’s book might not be first pick for those wanting to stick to battle stories, troop movements, logistics and the minutiae of a battle. But it is an excellent explanation of the aftermath and legacy of one of history’s most famous battles. As we approach the Holiday Season, I would highly recommend this excellent book for the history buff in your circle. As we stare down few more weeks of Covid-19 related confinement, I am confident this new (and beautifully bound) edition of Waterloo will be an ideal companion for long winter evenings.

_____________

Alan Forrest, Waterloo, London, The Folio Society, 2020, 224 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Cathleen Williamson, who is in charge of public relations for The Folio Society for generously providing me with a complimentary copy of this fascinating book.

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