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How do we remember the Battle of Waterloo?

From the moment the news of the victory was announced in London, Waterloo was hailed as a victory of special significance, all the more precious for being won on land against England’s oldest rival, France. Press and politicians alike built Waterloo into something exceptional. Castlereagh in Parliament would claim, for instance, that Waterloo was Wellington’s victory over Napoleon and that ‘it was an achievement of such high merit, of such pre-eminent importance, as had never perhaps graced the annals of this or any other country till now’. It had been a decisive victory, perhaps even an iconic victory, and certainly, in the British public’s eyes, a British one. In the moment of victory Waterloo was hailed as a national triumph and a testimony to British martial qualities of grit and stoicism in the face of the enemy. The contribution of the other nations that contributed to the Allied army (Dutch, Belgians, Hanoverians, Nassauers, even the Prussians) was singularly overlooked.

The initial jubilation that greeted the news of victory and the publication of the Waterloo Dispatch was undoubtedly spontaneous – joy at the victory and at the defeat of Napoleon, relief that the war was finally over – but spontaneous celebration soon gave way to official ceremonies with a more political purpose. Across Britain and throughout the British Empire Wellington and Waterloo were celebrated in the names of squares, bridges and railway stations, of mills and factories, of new towns and cities that were springing up from Canada to New Zealand. Particular emphasis was placed on Scottish and Irish involvement as the British government sought to inspire loyalty to what was still a relatively disunited Kingdom. Pride in Waterloo was used to cement the bonds that held Britain and the Empire together.

Others had greater difficulty in commemorating the battle, or saw it as less integral to their national identity. Prussia – and later in the century Germany – saw Leipzig as the decisive battle that had not only ended the Napoleonic Wars but had brought German together in a common cause to defend their territory against outside invasion. Berlin in the post-war years did have its Belle-Alliance Platz, and Hanover, unsurprisingly as the home of the King’s German Legion, feted its own contribution to the victory. Similarly, German celebrations focussed strongly on Blücher, and the contribution of the Prussians to the victory under their 73-year-old commander. But the level of celebration, and the commemoration, remained muted when compared to Britain.

Waterloo Lion, by Isabelle Grosjean. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Holland, the other major contributor to the Allied army at Waterloo, gave the battle rather more prominence, naming a major street in Amsterdam the Waterlooplein, and constructing the first and most eye-catching memorial, on the battlefield itself, the Butte du Lion, to commemorate where their young Prince Willem had sustained a wound in the fighting. If Waterloo signalled Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, the end of the war also marked a key moment in the rise of the House of Orange, as Orange rule was restored to Holland and Dutch honour was secured through the annexation of the southern Netherlands, today’s Belgium. Waterloo remains for the Dutch a dynastic triumph.

For France, of course, there was little to celebrate. Napoleon had lost his army at Waterloo as it was routed in the final retreat, and in the days that followed he was forced to abdicate for a second time. There would be no memorials to Waterloo, either in Paris or in provincial France, and the monument to the French troops on the battlefield itself would not be built till 1904.Throughout the nineteenth century France – encouraged by the poetry of Stendhal and Hugo – would regard Waterloo as a ‘glorious defeat’, epitomized by the last stand of the Imperial Guard and the (doubtless apocryphal) mot de Cambronne. The scale of the disaster may even have served to enhance Napoleon’s legend for a romantic age. The French would always see Waterloo as Victor Hugo’s ‘morne plaine’.

There are memorials to Waterloo and to Wellington’s victory across Britain and across the world: statues, victory arches, columns, military monuments. Streets, squares and bridges are named in their honour, and public subscriptions were opened to fund local memorials. Towns and villages took the name of Waterloo, including one on the Fylde in Lancashire and Waterlooville in Hampshire. In Canada Waterloo has become a major city in Ontario; in New Zealand the capital is Wellington; and no fewer than fourteen American states have towns called after the battle. In Spanish America, too, Wellington was hailed as the general who had driven Napoleon out of Spain. The Belgian historian Yves Vander Cruysen has drawn up a list of all the communities he can find that are named for the battle, and in all he has found 124. They are, of course, heavily concentrated in the English-speaking world, colonized in many cases by men who had fought at Waterloo and who, on being demobilized, sought adventure elsewhere.

Featured image credit: “Braine-L’Alleud – Butte du Lion dite de Waterloo”, by Jean-Pol Grandmont. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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