Last June 18 was the bicentennial of the Battle of waterloo. Well, I started writing this on June 18, then I got busy with other things. It is the two hundredth anniversary of the most famous battle ever.
It should be famous because it was one of the more important battles in history, in a very important time in history. It was at the end of the twenty five years of warfare that devastated Europe and also freed it from 1000 years of feudalism. What was really significant about it was that it seemed to drive home to the old aristocracy of Europe that things had changed for good; they could ship Napoleon off into exile for good but they were never going to undo what he did.
Most people will barely know what I am talking about , if that, because there is so little study of history. It is not taught in schools. I like studying history. It is the only way to understand how "now" got here. I think that is one reason why I understand better than most people what is going on in the "now".
What is really significant about Waterloo is not who won or lost. Napoleon never had much chance. He and the men under him were fighting to preserve the social progress that had been made in the past twenty years and they succeeded in that. But also, that they were defeated more by conspiracy within the army's staff than by the allied armies.
The allied states had declared war on Napoleon personally. While much of France rallied around him in outrage over the way France was dealt with in the first peace treaty, most ordinary people were very afraid of losing the social gains they had made over 25 years. But the privileged classes, including much of the officer corps of the army, knew that in the long run they could not win and it was going to be very sticky for those who had followed Napoleon in his last campaign.
The previous year the allied armies had swarmed into France and forced Napoleon's abdication. Twenty years previously the first republic had mobilized the power of France to drive all these armies back out of France, when they had tried to reinstall the French monarchy. Later Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and imposed the legal and civil innovations which had been developed by the French revolution. He redrew the boundaries of states to reflect geographic realities.
Napoleon was probably the most innovative military commander who ever lived. But he had some serious drawbacks as a political leader. He and the people around him developed a "Napoleon complex" and lost touch with reality. They antagonized elements of the populations in conquered countries who could have been won over.
Initially, the common people in much of Europe loved getting conquered by the French; it was for them a liberation from a feudal system. The Napoleonic legal code was a huge advance in human emancipation, creating something like equality before the law for everybody.
Historians have debated for two centuries about how old Boney blew it. There was the chauvinistic arrogance of many of the governors he appointed. There was the "continental system" he set up to break Britain by cutting off trade with the European continent, which ended up hurting the continental economies worse than the British. There were the heavy taxes and conscriptions he imposed to support a massive war machine.
But he left the old aristocracies in power. He though he could win them over by giving them a place in his new system. They obeyed him only while waiting to stab him in the back.
Their opportunity came when he was defeated in Russia. The aristocrats were cunning enough to promise the commoners that they would keep the desirable Napoleonic reforms in place but would end foreign rule. Even so, Napoleon beat them at first, using the German and Italian troops he had recruited and trained in French techniques.
The turn came at the Battle of Leipzig, where Napoleon was unable to lead effectively because of an attack of his strange illness, and his subordinates botched the job. His foreign auxiliaries began to desert in mass and join their former rulers.
Now these rulers had an army as well trained as the French. Unlike their failure against the French republic, they could raise money and conscripts to build a much larger army than the French. They regained the loyalty of their subjects by promising to keep Napoleon's reforms but get rid of him and his arrogant governors.
Napoleon refused to admit defeat until his own marshals turned on him to prevent further destruction of France by a foreign invasion. Then the marshals found they had been lied to; a monarchy was reimposed on France, and humiliating terms and reparations were imposed on it. Then the victorious allies began arguing among themselves about how best to undo everything that had happened in the past quarter century.
The French people became frightened and then rebellious. They had got used to having some freedom. The new king, brother of the one whose head they had cut off in 1793, seemed bent on revenge and on restoring feudalism. The word "revanchism"- revenge-ism, was coined to describe the behavior of the old aristocracy as they sought to reassert themselves.
The revanchism soon lead to outright revolt. They were plenty of men in France with military experience and they seemed to have kept their weapons or found new ones. France was close to civil war.
Outside of France, unrest was growing as it became clear that the European aristocracy was not going to keep its promise to not try to restore feudalism. Some countries, such as Spain and Holland, were getting shafted in the negotiations on post war spheres of influence. This was the situation which prompted Napoleon to try for a comeback.
He quickly assembled a new army strictly from volunteers with experience in at least one campaign; a very powerful force. However, it was greatly outnumbered by the forces the allies could bring into the field. Yet these were not all very well trained and of dubious reliability.
Most historians of the battle of Waterloo are fairly conservative types; people who see things through the lens of a "natural order of things". They have some blank spots in their understanding of why the army Napoleon brought to Waterloo was defeated by such a scraped together, motley, disorganized force. They barely acknowledge that many of the Prussian troops refused to fight and that the commanders of the Dutch force kept threatening to march away on their own.
The reason Napoleon lost at Waterloo was not because he had a tummy ache that day. He was fairly ill, but he had a couple of experienced commanders with him to take up the slack. The French were beaten at Waterloo that day because they were, quite simply, riddled with traitors throughout their staff networks.
Orders were not passed on. False information was spread around causing French generals to deploy to meet threats that were not there. Most dramatically, somehow an order for cavalry to charge was issued which did not come from the officer in charge, Marshal Ney. The cavalry charged too soon and suffered great casualties.
All this began to rattle the French troops. The French could have recovered from finding a force of Prussians marching up behind them. The British and Dutch force in front of them was bottled up, with no cavalry left. Part of the French force could have pivoted to meet the new group of Prussians.
But they began to panic. The British made a last, desperate charge and it worked. The French broke.
But even though defeated, the French were far from destroyed. Their cavalry were intact and were able to cover the withdrawal. There was another French force a short distance away, blocking a Prussian force from moving toward Waterloo.
The commander of this force, Marshal Grouchy, after doing little all day on the 18th, oddly decided next morning to wipe out the Prussians in front of him before marching back into France.
The combined British and Prussian forces were in no condition to pursue the French immediately. The French army pulled itself together after Napoleon left it and marched back into France. Marshal Davout came out from Paris to take command of it after Napoleon abdicated a second time.
It is interesting why Davout was in Paris instead of at Waterloo. He was Napoleon's best and most loyal marshal. But he was needed in Paris to organize the mobilization and to deal with some mysterious internal problems in the war ministry. These problems had something to do with Marshal Soult, who Napoleon had appointed as chief of staff on his return from exile until he was removed just before the Waterloo campaign kicked off.
What happened next is also interesting. Davout restored the French army of the north as an effective force and defeated a Prussian army marching into France. But then his subordinates began refusing to obey him any further, becoming very "passive aggressive".
No doubt most of these officers were starting to think of their own positions after another monarchical restoration. But the ordinary soldiers under them thought about their own positions under a restored monarchy and began to desert, taking their weapons with them.
The restored king as a rule refused to trust any officers who had sworn allegiance to him and then gone back to Napoleon. He even had Marshal Ney executed as a scapegoat. But it is interesting that a few officers, including Soult and Grouchy, who followed Napoleon on his return, were immediately back in the royal favor.
However, the king also finally realized that if he did what the Royalists wanted, and what the victorious allies wanted, he was going to rule a destroyed country in a state of civil war. He had to leave the peasants with the land they had gained after the breaking up of the feudal estates during the republic. The old aristocracy had to settle for stipends as compensations for their lost estates and privileges.
This calmed the situation down inside France. However, it led the allies to start thinking of new ways to punish the French king and prevent France from rising again. At this point the British General who won a Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, took over as British delegate to the "Congress of Vienna."
Perhaps Wellington's close brush with disaster had an effect on him. He was able to convince the great powers to stop maneuvering for advantage, thinking about the next big war. Instead, they tried setting up a system of balanced forces to keep the peace. This "Vienna system" is credited to the Austrian minister Metternich. Wellington was really responsible for it.
They agreed to try to keep the peace for twenty years. Peace lasted forty years, there were a few wars of limited scope, and then another long period of peace until world war one finally broke out, which lead to the final collapse of most of these great powers. The century after Waterloo were the most peaceful Europe had seen in many centuries.
However, a big thing preventing more wars between the powers was that they had to start dealing with class war within their borders. They decided to leave France alone because they needed to disarm armies which were becoming unreliable.
The aristocrats did all they could to reverse the progress that had come from Napoleon's conquests, but they only partially and temporarily succeeded. They could never stifle the desire for more democracy and rule of law, for a final end to feudal relations. All their attempts to return the map to an approximation of what it was before, went wrong for them.
France remained an example of a more free and open society, with something close to a real democracy. Anytime the rulers of France began imposing too much on the population, they ended up having to flee into exile.
It likely would not have happened this way without the Waterloo battle. Napoleon with his "Waterloo" really did shift the goalposts, alter the "course of history". Before Waterloo, the goal of the aristocracy was to turn the clock back on everything that had happened since the French revolution. Afterward, they became focussed on preserving their power and privileges by reversing things where they could, but not to provoke a new revolution.
That is really what kept the peace and cleared the way for industrialization to take hold in Europe. The old order was destroyed and the order that is essentially what we have today became established. Society in Europe changed more in the quarter century between the storming of the Bastille and the battle of Waterloo than it had in the previous thousand years, or since then.
Before this period, the dynamic was of very slow progress as small feudal principalities coalesced into national states out of centuries of war. Most people were just serfs. Since then, the dynamic has been of continual cycles of social progress driven by technological progress, punctuated by revanchistic reactions by whoever thinks they are losing their power and privileges.
But is this two century old dynamic going toward a conclusion? And why have wars become so violent again in this past century? Are we entering into another period of abrupt change and intense conflict? Are we already in it? The present certainly does look like the western world just before the French Revolution broke out. An elite is trying to take out of the economic system what they have been accustomed to, but which is not available anymore.
Students of economic history notice that this is how political orders always seem to collapse; the wealthy want too much, the subordinate classes rebel in order to survive, and there is a period of disorder until a new stasis, a new stability, eventually comes about. The year 1815 was when Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna settled what the new stasis would be.
We are still living within that stasis. We are still in the world of great power spheres of influence, (neo) liberal economics, and legalist/progressivist government with a limited democracy. A "progressive" elite has developed and have, at least until now, learned how to manage change so as to preserve their power.
A more revanchist element in the oligarchic elite has been growing lately, as the "crisis of profitability", the inability of the oligarchy to get what it wants, has taken hold. Some people talk of a return the kind of world we had before the Waterloo period; to a neofeudal order. That is, one where owners of property have total control over everyone else's lives and therefore social progress is slow and difficult.
Or, we could be about to break through a new order in which institutions exist to meet human needs. This is what the socialists and anarchists think. That will not come easily, as some people think. It will be very messy and will take a long time to play out, like the last great period of fundamental change.
Happy Waterloo day. tr