Oh Yeah, Europe has met its Destiny in the Waterloo way

On the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, take a look at the event that spawned both legend and pop culture

Published
Opinion
4 min read
A reconstitution of the Battle of Waterloo. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Waterloo which took place on June 18, 1815, marked the end of the Napoleonic era and will be differently remembered in Europe on the occasion of the bi-centenary on June 18.

For France it is seen as the beginning of the end of French ascendancy in the colonial era. For England and other coalition allies, however, Waterloo is seen as the most decisive land battle of the 19th century and the Duke of Wellington venerated as the architect who saved Europe from the ‘little corporal’.

Waterloo: The Stuff of Legend and Pop Culture

The history associated with Waterloo is still being contested (a small group in Belgium maintains that no battle took place at all in Waterloo, which is 15 kilometres south of Brussels and that the actual fighting took place in the adjacent village of Braine-l’Alleud).

Yet a legend has grown around Waterloo and the word has entered the English lexicon to denote the ultimate defeat or surrender. Waterloo, for the record, was the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington from where he sent his famous victory dispatch.

French cuirassier during the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo (1815), in June 2011, Waterloo, Belgium. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
French cuirassier during the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo (1815), in June 2011, Waterloo, Belgium. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

It has also found its way into pop music and in the mid-1970s, the well-known Swedish group Abba had a song entitled ‘Waterloo’. This 1974 song, which became a global favourite, refers to a girl who is about to ‘surrender’ to love and romance, in much the same manner that a defeated Napoleon had to surrender to the Anglo-Allied forces. The first lines are poignant:

“My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender /Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way/The history book on the shelf/Is always repeating itself.”

The Narratives Around the Battle are Still Being Debated

However, there is little denying that Waterloo in 1815 marked the end of continental Europe’s primacy – which at the time had a distinct Napoleonic texture to it.

The allied coalition at the time that was ranged against France included England, Prussia, Netherlands, Austria and some of the smaller kingdoms.

The troops who engaged in the six-hour battle included 73,000 on the French side led by Napoleon and Ney; pitted against 118,000 Anglo-Allied men. The latter comprised 68,000 English plus allied nations and 50,000 Prussians led by Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) and Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher.

A Cameron urging on the Highland Line at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He is playing the Piobaireachd “War or Peace”. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
A Cameron urging on the Highland Line at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He is playing the Piobaireachd “War or Peace”. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

This was a battle that could have gone either way and its tactical unfolding is still the subject of intense debate and deliberation among military professionals. Was Wellington too cautious and surprised by Napoleon? Could Marshal Ney have deployed his forces differently? What if the Prussians had not arrived in time and above all the rain…?

The contribution of the plucky Hanoverian troops and those from Nassau and Brunswick cannot be ignored either.

200 years later, the spirited debate that began with von Clausewitz, the famous military strategist, and that elicited a detailed response from Wellington almost 30 years after the battle, will no doubt be catalysed by the bi-centenary.

A Sense of Déjà Vu Pervades Europe, 200 Years On

The dramatic rise and fall of the Napoleonic era, soon after the French Revolution in the late 18th/early 19th centuries included the dazzling military successes across Europe, the audacious campaign against Russia where Napoleon was defeated by ‘General Winter’ and the reverses suffered by France in the naval battle of Trafalgar in October 1805.

Waterloo marked the end of French imperium and the beginning of British dominance as the pendulum of power crossed the English Channel.

The Battle of Waterloo has become the stuff of legend as well as material for pop culture. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
The Battle of Waterloo has become the stuff of legend as well as material for pop culture. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Many tectonic changes have occurred in the last two centuries and 200 years later there is a sense of d vu – as continental Europe symbolised by the European Union and the euro as a currency are in a different kind of decline and vulnerability.

Beginning with the fiscal crisis in Portugal and Greece and the politico-economic malaise that spread to Spain and Netherlands, this weakening of comprehensive national power has now afflicted major EU nations such as Italy and now France. The cohesion and pan-European identity that would subsume deeply ingrained animosities is now frayed and Russia remains the surly outsider.

An Abba Song for an Elegy

The poignancy of the Abba song may be the most appropriate elegiac recall 200 years later, as the world mourns the dead of a distant battle where almost 70,000 soldiers were killed and many injured; and in the new millennium we witness the decline of one geo-political entity, the rise of another, brittle nationalism, new alliances, latent belligerence…and ponder over the deeper rhythm of the world where:

“The history book on the shelf

Is always repeating itself.”

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.)

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