Posts Tagged ‘waterloo’
June 18 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo and Europe is abuzz (at least western Europe) with a major reenactment event occurring this weekend (they are even live-streaming it). There is no doubt of the importance of the battle to history, but its importance remains today. It cemented Britain’s position in the world for the next hundred years and laid the foundations for Europe as we now it today. It represented the defeat of the ideals of revolutionary France, much to the relief of monarchists across Europe. Time discussed the importance of the battle, while The Telegraph provided several great stories on the event, including advocating the study of the battle by students. Despite such major subsequent events in military history, as both World Wars, the Cold War, and the current War on Terror, why do we still gravitate to Waterloo?
One reason is because of its importance to the study of warfare. Waterloo ended a long period of conflict between Napoleonic France and the rest of Europe not under his control. His leadership abilities, as well as those of Wellington and Blucher influenced the study of warfare and the thinkers of military history and strategy for years to come (i.e. Napoleonic tactics), which were used in subsequent wars in America, especially the Civil War. Waterloo was such a stunning victory for the Allies over a foe that, until his ill-fated invasion of Russia, had largely been undefeated that understanding how Napoleon was defeated was viewed as essential to future commanders for learning how to overcome odds and achieve victory.
Waterloo’s paving of the way towards our modern understanding of Europe cannot be ignored. It is a perfect example of international cooperation to defeat a common enemy, as Prussian and British forces united to beat the French and save western Europe. As Time pointed out in their article, it played a role in the eventual conceptualization of NATO and the UN, as Wellington’s army consisted of Prussians, British, the Dutch, and other smaller German states, coalesced into a grand alliance. While not the first example of such alliances in warfare, it is one of the more important because of the level of change the outcome of the battle had on European history and geography.
Finally, Waterloo seems to fascinate us because it is one of the last examples in military history of a major pitched battle of forces standing shoulder to shoulder across a field in brightly colored uniforms. Historical wargamers remain enamored with the Napoleonic period, with one man fighting the battle in 6mm (you can view a video of it here). It is one of the last, if not the last, major battle involving flintlock muskets, as technological changes coming by the mid-19th century would render the tactics in the battle obsolete, though leaders still used them, with deadly results (i.e. American Civil War).
As Europe reflects on 100 years since World War I, the next major conflagration to consume the continent, they reflect on the battle that ended an era, while setting in motion the forces that contributed in various ways to that next European war. Waterloo will always have a place in history and continues to provide valuable lessons to succeeding generations. We remember Wellington’s stunning victory, which propelled him to a successful career in British politics, including Prime Minister, as well as a man exiled in defeat, having once come close to being the master of Europe. How different Europe might be were it not for one battle 200 years ago.
And for context: Douglas Egerton, “Before Charleston Church Shooting, A Long History of Attacks“
John Garrison Marks, “The African Church and Black Resistance in Antebellum Charleston“
Last Friday, June 8th, Belgian archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of a soldier killed during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Buried under just 15 inches of soil, the position of the skeleton suggests the young man died where he fell and was hastily covered with a thin layer of dirt, probably by his comrades. This is a very rare find. The victorious armies cleared the battlefield of their dead, and the defeated French were eventually buried on site in mass graves. It’s the first time in a century that a body from the Napoleonic wars has been found on a Belgian battlefield, and this one is almost entirely undisturbed.
Waterloo was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, which is why there is a man-made conical hill called the Lion Mound memorializing the spot where the Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne, was hit in the shoulder by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo. The soldier’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Lion Mound.
Unfortunately his skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers prepping the area for the upcoming demolition and re-construction of the visitor’s center, shops, hotels and parking lots. The Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant took over and excavated the rest of the skeleton, finding it almost complete. Only the skull, one foot and some hand bones are missing.
The body was spared any Thénardier-style looting. Coins were found in his pocket, one of them a half franc from 1811, the others too corroded to identify immediately. Experts are cleaning them now. He was also carrying a flint and a small red sphere in his right pocket. Next to his body were discovered a spoon and an unidentified wooden object, possibly a rifle butt, with the initials “C.B.” carved into it.
His uniform has rotted away but his leather epaulets survived. Archaeologists are hoping they will be able to identify the soldier’s regiment from the epaulets, and possibly from the spoon if it’s army-issue. If they can discover his regiment, they’ll probably be able to find his name on the combatant records. The initial analysis of the bones indicates that he was around 20 years old, 5’1″ tall and had abrasion grooves on his molars from tearing opening gunpowder tubules with his teeth.
One particularly poignant artifact was a musket ball found inside the soldier’s ribcage. This is probably the smoking gun, as it were: he took a bullet to the chest, then either retreated or was carried by comrades 100 yards or so behind the front line. The location of his burial was 100 meters (109 yards) behind the British front line, close to the Duke of Wellington’s army infirmary. It’s highly unlikely that a French soldier would have fallen in this position. Although we don’t know for sure yet, the soldier was probably British.
The British cleared the field of their dead after their victory, burying them in consecrated ground. This fellow could have been overlooked because he was buried, albeit shallowly, where he died. The French dead, in contrast, remained unburied for days, their bodies robbed by locals, until they were put in mass graves and burned with quicklime.
There is some footage of the skeleton being examined in the lab and of the battlefield in this BBC News video.
A few years ago, I reported on Russia clearing the site of the Battle of Borodino in preparation for the double centenary commemorations. This was the battlefield where Napoleon won a pyrrhic victory over Russia, and now another Napoleonic battle site is being spruced up. Waterloo was where Napoleon’s hopes were finally ended by an allied coalition, and bulldozers are moving in to remove unwanted buildings and parking areas to improve the sight of the battlefield, which still receives 300,000 tourists a year. Paul Furlan, a tourism minister in Belgium, explained to AP: “We want to bring authenticity back to Waterloo, which is one of the most well-preserved battlefields in the world… The site is currently very limited. The structures have aged and are not adapted to modern tourism.”