The Tories' commemoration of the bicentenary of Waterloo is another example of their wish to boost the image of the armed forces today. John Newsinger relates the real reasons for the battle in June 1815.
The Conservative right was determined to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Waterloo bloodbath in style.
After all, the centenary in 1915 had been spoiled by the fact that, at the time, the British were allied with the French against the Germans who had been Britain’s allies in 1815.
Indeed, there had been more German troops in the field that year fighting the French than there were British.
Now, as the Daily Mail proclaimed, the way was clear to celebrate the battle that “allowed us to build the world’s greatest empire”, and if this upset the French, so much the better.
Celebrating past battles and wars has, of course, become one of the ideological ploys of the Tories. This is not only intended to wrap them in patriotism and militarism but also serves to cover up the fact that today the British army is weaker and less militarily effective than at any other time in modern history.
Celebrating past battles presumably serves as some sort of consolation. The government has contributed £1 million to help fund the celebration. To make sure that everyone can share in the glory half-a-million bronze commemorative medals have been produced.
And there is a flood of history books on the battle, including the inevitable volume by TV’s foremost military historian, the hero of the August 2011 riots, Dan Snow (he carried out a “citizen’s arrest” of a kid looting a shoe shop).
What of the battle itself? On 18 June 1815 some 55,000 men were killed or wounded in a ferocious bloodbath that was to decide which ruling classes would dominate Europe.
Was it to be the new French ruling class that had emerged from the Great French Revolution or the traditional ruling classes of Russia, Britain and Germany?
Armies made up overwhelmingly of the poor, of labourers and peasants, slaughtered each other for the benefit of their rulers. It was the British ruling class’s financial resources that were decisive in determining the outcome of the conflict, not military prowess.
The ferocity of Waterloo should not be underestimated. The toll of dead and mutilated is proportionately comparable with the losses suffered in the great battles on the Western Front in the First World War — and this was all in one day!
The battlefield was piled high with the dead and the dying. Mutilated men and horses were strewn everywhere, dying in agony.
This butchery is what the Daily Mail wants to celebrate as a heroic instance of Britishness.
The British army at this time was notorious for its brutality, its tendency towards rape, pillage and murder. In the Spanish campaign the “liberation” of the towns of Ciudad Roderigo in January 1812, Badajoz in April of that year, and San Sebastian in August 1813 had been disasters for their inhabitants.
In Badajoz over 4,000 Spanish civilians were killed. One British officer later wrote that there were “no words” to describe “the atrocities committed by our soldiers on the poor innocent and defenceless inhabitants of the city”.
Over a thousand civilians were killed during the “liberation” of San Sebastian. According to another British officer, the conduct of the troops towards civilians “would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity”.
The historian Charles Esdaile has described this episode as being without any doubt a war crime.
The troops put the town to the torch leaving only 36 of its 600 houses standing and the survivors were sleeping in the ruins.
Being “liberated” by the British army was not a pleasant experience.
Another problem for those who see Waterloo as a triumph of Britishness is that most of the allied troops fighting the French were not British.
Of the 68,000 troops under Wellington’s command only 24,000 were actually British. They were outnumbered by the 26,000 Germans, including a force of 6,000 enlisted in a German-speaking unit, the King’s German Legion, in the British Army.
The British continued recruiting Germans into the British Army up until German unification in 1871, so that there were over 4,000 Germans serving in the British army during the Crimean War in the 1850s.
There were also 18,000 Dutch and Belgian troops fighting at Waterloo. And to make matters worse for the champions of Britishness, the battle was only finally won by the arrival of the Prussian Army, some 100,000 strong, under Marshal Blucher.
The hero of the day was, of course, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
The man being held up for our admiration was a diehard reactionary, a sworn and open enemy of the common people. He bitterly opposed the Great Reform Act of 1832.
Such was the hatred in which he was held at the time that radical crowds regularly broke the windows at his palatial home, Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner, and he had to have iron shutters put up.
In 1848 he was put in charge of the troops assembled in London ready to put down a feared Chartist uprising.
Neither Wellington nor Waterloo is anything to celebrate.