Waterloo: a victory for European co-operation, not just for Britain

Waterloo was a victory for European co-operation, not a simple matter of Britain versus France, or Wellington against Napoleon, says a Swansea historian and expert in the field. 18th June marks the 200th anniversary of the 1815 battle.

A coalition of nations defeated Napoleon, including not just British troops but forces from the territories that we now know as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, said Dr Leighton James. He added that the battle was less of a turning point than we might think: if anything, the key moment was the battle of Leipzig in 1813, two years before Waterloo. 

Dr James is associate professor in the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University. His research expertise includes the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in German Central Europe and the Seven Years War.

Dr Leighton James said:

“Waterloo was a European victory, not just a British one. It was a victory for European co-operation, and to characterise it as just a British triumph is too simple.

Wellington’s troops fought alongside soldiers from areas we know now as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In fact, the real turning point in the battle is the arrival of the Prussians, who appear just in time to reinforce Wellington’s troops.

At that point, most of the soldiers fighting against Napoleon are German."

Leighton James - Closing of the GatesPicture: The Closing of the Gates of Hougomont, by Robert Gibb. This was one of the opening encounters in the Battle of Waterloo, with French troops trying - and failing - to storm an Allied strongpoint. Copyright: National Museums of Scotland

Dr James added that the popular notion of Waterloo as the defining battle in the struggle against Napoleon was misplaced:

‌"Leipzig in 1813 was the biggest battle in Europe before the First World War, involving over 600,000 troops. It pitted the Germans, Austrian, Russians and a small number of British forces against the French.

Leipzig – rather than Waterloo – was the key moment when Napoleon’s empire really begins to crumble. Waterloo was really an epilogue."

Leighton James - French Grenadier's UniformPicture: French Grenadier's uniform from Waterloo. Copyright: Museé de l'Armée, Paris.

Dr James adds that there needs to be more debate about memory of historical events, about what we commemorate, how and why:

“There’s not enough debate in Britain about famous victories, but we do need to question as well as celebrate. British celebrations of the bicentenary of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) saw relatively little historical debate, in contrast to French commemorations of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in the same year.

When it comes to Waterloo, France is seen as the aggressor and Britain as the defender, whereas the reality is far more complex. Around that time Britain was conquering French territories, and at war with the Americans.”

Picture below: The Plumb-pudding in danger: cartoon by British satirist James Gillray showing the struggle between the British and French, a view which Dr James says is too simplistic to apply to the Battle of Waterloo. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery

Leighton James - Plum PuddingA new research centre at Swansea University has been set up to examine conflicts such as Waterloo, and the way in which they are remembered and commemorated.

The Centre for Conflict, Reconstruction and Memory (CRAM) brings together researchers from Swansea and other universities.

Dr Chris Millington, senior lecturer in history at Swansea University and co-convenor of the CRAM group, said:

“Conflicts such as Waterloo have helped to shape, and continue to re-shape, our world, and the memory and commemoration of these are constantly in the public eye.

CRAM brings together academics from different backgrounds who all have an interest in studying conflict, and the aftermath and commemoration of conflict.

It's exciting to have a forum in which to discuss ideas with colleagues from different departments and institutions, and we hope it will provide the basis for future collaborative projects.”

Waterloo: key facts and figures

  • The battle involved around 200,000 soldiers, and left 12,000 dead and 35,000 wounded
  • It was fought during the 100 day period of Napoleon’s “Restoration” after he escaped from Elba, where he had been exiled after surrendering in 1814.
  • Waterloo is a small town around 9 miles south of Brussels
  • Welshman General Sir Thomas Picton, born in Haverfordwest, was the highest-ranking British officer to be killed in the battle
  • Waterloo was the first battle where all British combatants received a medal, not just the officers
  • German soldiers fought in Wellington’s forces as well as with their Prussian allies – in the First World War soldiers on both sides sometimes had the same military honours, inherited from their forebears who fought on the same side.
  • Waterloo became a major tourist site within a few years of the battle

Find out more about history and classics at Swansea University