Waterloo Day

Posted by Helen Monday, June 19, 2006

Yesterday, as all our readers know without doubt, was Waterloo Day and time for Tory Historian’s annual pilgrimage to Apsley House, where a great deal of jollification seemed to be going on.

Firstly, there were guards in appropriate uniforms; the Battle of Waterloo had been laid out on a large table in the Waterloo Gallery and enthusiastic children were helping no less enthusiastic adult experts to put away the model soldiers; there were also guided tours with good accounts of the battle and the history of the house, all listened to with rapt attention by other children and, naturally enough, their parents.

All of which makes me go off on that well-worn tangent: the teaching of history. For once, I’d like to concentrate not on the disgraceful lack of teaching in schools but on the assumption made by too many writers and organizers of events that the only way children’s interest can be kept is by jokes, hectic entertainment and as little information as possible. Some museums, I am sorry to say, have taken that view recently as well – entertainment rather than education.

But all evidence shows that interestingly presented historical information can capture and usually keep children’s attention. Why should they not find the Battle of Waterloo or the Napoleonic Wars in general interesting? The novels based on those wars sell in their millions. The reality is considerably more exciting.

Last year, when the anniversary was slightly more round that this year I became involved in an argument with a fan of the Emperor from the Continent. His argument was that, writing from a British point of view, I naturally assumed that the man’s defeat was a good thing for Europe and for freedom. But Britain was fighting not just for her existence as a country but also from a political and legal system that, despite the various problems, was more advanced than any of the Continental ones.

Even so, as Andrew Roberts points out in his “Napoleon and Wellington”, there were politicians and writers who, despite Napoleon’s growing despotism continued to support him against their own government, which happened to be of another party. Shades of more modern political and military debates there.

On the Continent, my correspondent maintained, the situation was different. With all his faults Napoleon was bringing some of the still untarnished ideas of the French Revolution with him – enlightenment, freedom of religion, destruction of feudalism. His defeat reversed all those processes, at least temporarily and returned power to feudal overlords.

What of the national wars of liberation, I asked, fought with increasing ferocity in several parts of Europe? That, too, in his opinion, was led by the local aristocracy who saw their power slipping away.

As they used to say in exam papers: discuss.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. The British believed they had to defeat Bonaparte. He was a threat to their independence, their prosperity, their institutions. They were right to think this. Bonaparte was a tyrant. By 20th Century standards, a relatively benign one. It is also true that his regime at least initially had a broad appeal, since even in the guise of the Empire, the French regime embodied liberal elements that were perceived as progressive by many people and hence popular with some groups. The bottom line is probably that Bonaparte himself was so disruptive and ruthless that he had to be stopped, if only to bring the series of wars to an end. In that sense, imposing peace, the defeat of Bonaparte was a good thing, with very little equivocation. The long term legacy was of course mixed. German-Prussian nationalism got an important boost from the defeat of Bonaparte. The defeat of Bonaparte in many ways laid the foundation for the rise of a united and militarist Germany. But that is a pretty attenuated chain of causation. It is also true that there was an illiberal reaction following the defeat of Bonaparte, but that reaction was, for better or worse, short-lived.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. As it happens, the Germany that united in 1870 was militaris but that was not a given in 1815. Could it have united under the liberal Diet of 1848?

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