The significance of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 is inextricably linked to the incredible story of one man: Napoleon Bonaparte. But, while it is in the context of Napoleon’s remarkable life and military career that the famous battle is best remembered, Waterloo’s wider impact should not be underestimated.
Make no mistake, the events of that bloody day changed the course of history. As Victor Hugo wrote, “Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe”.
An end to the Napoleonic Wars
The Battle of Waterloo brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars once and for all, finally thwarting Napoleon’s efforts to dominate Europe and bringing about the end of a 15-year period marked by near constant warring.
Of course, Napoleon had already been defeated a year earlier, only to escape exile in Elba and mount a stirring effort to revive his military aspirations over the course of the “Hundred Days”, a last gasp campaign that saw the outlawed French emperor lead the Armée du Nord into battle with the Seventh Coalition.
Even if his efforts were never likely to succeed, given the military mismatch his troops faced, the boldness of Napoleon’s revival undoubtedly set the stage for Waterloo’s dramatic denouement.
The development of the British Empire
Inevitably, the legacy of Waterloo is interwoven with competing narratives. In Britain the battle was heralded as a gallant triumph and the Duke of Wellington was duly lauded as the hero (with Napoleon taking the role of arch-villain of course).
In the eyes of Britain, Waterloo became a national triumph, an authoritative glorification of British values that was instantly worthy of celebration and commemoration in songs, poems, street names and stations.
To some extent Britain’s response was justified; it was a victory that positioned the country favourably, bolstering its global ambitions and helping to create the conditions for the economic success that lay ahead in the Victorian era.
Having laid the final, decisive blow on Napoleon, Britain could command a leading role in the peace negotiations that followed and thus shape a settlement that suited its interests.
While other coalition states claimed back sections of Europe, the Vienna Treaty gave Britain control over a number of global territories, including South Africa, Tobago, Sri Lanka, Martinique and the Dutch East Indies, something that would become instrumental in the development of the British Empire’s vast colonial command.
It is perhaps telling that in other parts of Europe, Waterloo — though still widely acknowledged as decisive — is generally accorded less significance than the Battle of Leipzig.
“A generation of peace”
If Waterloo was Britain’s greatest military triumph, as it is often feted, it surely does not owe that status to the battle itself. Military historians generally agree that the battle was not a great showcase of either Napoleon’s or Wellington’s strategic prowess.
Indeed, Napoleon is commonly believed to have made several important blunders at Waterloo, ensuring that Wellington’s task of holding firm was less challenging than it might have been. The battle was a bloodbath on an epic scale but, as an example of two great military leaders locking horns, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Ultimately, Waterloo’s greatest significance must surely be the role it played in achieving lasting peace in Europe. Wellington, who did not share Napoleon’s relish for battle, is said to have told his men, “If you survive, if you just stand there and repel the French, I’ll guarantee you a generation of peace”.
He was not wrong; by finally defeating Napoleon, the Seventh Coalition did bring about peace, laying the foundations for a unified Europe in the process.