Why Waterloo still fascinates us

How much do you know about the Battle of Waterloo?
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How much do you know about the Battle of Waterloo? 01:02

Story highlights

  • June 18 marks the bicentennial of Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated
  • Andrew Roberts: There's much for Britons to commemorate

Andrew Roberts is the author of "Napoleon: A Life." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday is being commemorated across Britain this month, with hundreds of receptions, speeches, bonfires, museum exhibitions, TV and radio programs, university lecture series, church services, auctions, book publications and all the other paraphernalia of massive public celebration.

What has struck me most powerfully, though, is how many people are hosting private dinners at their own houses for friends, at which they will be toasting the Duke of Wellington's victories.
Across the country, people are digging out their family memorabilia and showing it off to neighbors with pride. Only this week, I gave a speech in Oxford about the Duchess of Richmond's famous pre-Waterloo ball. There, a lady who is descended from Wellington's mistress Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster brought along the shawl that she wore to the ball that fateful night.
    Wellington was right to say that the battle was "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life." And although he only won it because of Britain's Belgian, Dutch and especially Prussian allies, there was a huge price to pay.
    Waterloo lit the slow fuse of the horrifying force of German hypernationalism, the defeat of which required the sacrifice of the British Empire 130 years later. Although at the time the battle seemed merely like the last of a series of traditional dynastic and territorial struggles, in fact Waterloo ushered in the modern world. And as Winston Churchill predicted at the end of the 19th century: "The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings."
    The Vienna Treaty that followed Waterloo gave Britain Cape Colony, Trinidad, Ceylon and various African and Asian possessions, the nodal points for what was swiftly to become a huge oceanic empire.
    With the Union Jack flying over the castle at Cape Town, the Royal Navy would always be able to keep the trade routes to British India open. After Waterloo, France was returned to much her same borders as before the Revolution and was later in the century only permitted to occupy minor and tangential colonies, often with more sand than raw materials.
    With low birthrates, lackluster industrialization vis a vis Britain, small navies, generally unproductive colonies, endemic political crises (often prompted by people with Napoleonic fantasies) and regular military defeats -- most spectacularly in 1870-71, 1940 and 1954 -- France was set on a downward trajectory ever since Napoleon's Imperial Guard broke at Waterloo.
    Even her victory in World War I was only won after the hecatomb of Ypres; in all, 1.4 million Frenchmen died in the conflict, against 880,000 Britons.
    Britain has stayed on generally very good terms with France since 1815, having that year secured everything she needed for her future greatness.
    The Entente Cordiale works, as the Libyan and Mali expeditions and the joint use of France's aircraft carrier shows. Instead, France's true nemesis turned out to be Britain's co-victor at Waterloo: Prussia.
    However, although we often look at Waterloo from the British perspective, and occasionally from the French, we almost never view it through the prism of Prussia. Indeed, without the Prussians, Wellington would not have fought the battle -- and probably could not have won it if he had.
    The Prussian contribution to the destruction of Napoleon soon entered the mythology of the Prussian state and, along with the contributions of Prussian Field Marshal August Graf Niedhardt von Gneisenau and Prussian General Gerhard von Scharnhorst in the War of Liberation of 1813, it became an integral part of the foundation myth of Otto von Bismarck's mighty new German empire after 1870.
    The Kaiser was to recall the Prussian victory at Waterloo before World War I, and the two Iron Crosses won by Adolf Hitler in that war, for example, were both stamped with the talismanic date "1813."
    First Prussian nationalism, then its successor German nationalism, and ultimately their bastard child hypernationalism, were to leave scars on the 20th century far worse than anything left by Napoleon in the 19th century.
    Indeed, if the allies had merely left Napoleon alone in 1815 and contained him instead of destroying him, his already much-weakened France could not have posed any threat to the peace of the continent before his death from stomach cancer at 51 less than six years later.
    For the British, the battle of Waterloo both gave them their empire, but also, in the long run, created the geostrategic conditions that eventually ensured that the sun would set on it. For the Prussians, the battle fomented dreams of continental domination that it took two world wars to eviscerate. For the French, it extinguished those same dreams, never to be rekindled.
    There is therefore much for Britons to commemorate about that extraordinary battle just south of Brussels 200 years ago.