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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The 200th Anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo...

brings to mind many things, most especially Wellington and Napoleon, and their personal differences that determined the fate of Europe on June 18, 1815...

The Duke of Wellington believed that if he had not been there at Waterloo, the day may well have been lost. This was not a show of egotism on his part. Indeed, the duke was self-confident, but never to the point of losing touch with reality and projecting a false image of himself. He weighed his strengths and lack thereof in balance, and knew that he was more than willing to admit that he was not of the same caliber of genius as his adversary. However, he knew that his own unique skills and strengths were needed in that dark hour to secure victory, and realized that his dogged, determined presence was a deciding factor to keep his forces from collapsing in the face of the Man who had Never Lost a Battle.

    Napoleon was a military genius, and he knew it. The problem with this realization was that it rapidly went to his head, sabotaging said genius with a massive ego block. He had so much faith in his own mystical star of destiny, it was only a matter of time that he would over-play his hand in the gamble with fate, and lose to saner minds. Perhaps this is one of the greatest realities of life written by the Architect of the Universe. Man is merely Man; when he thinks he is God, his plans are doomed to crumble into dust.  Or, in plainer terminology, being a narcissistic spoiled brat with plans for world domination generally doesn’t pay, but has a marvelously rebound effect rife with poetic justice!

    Wellington would rather not have had to fight at Waterloo. He was more than happy that the whole nasty business of the war was over, and he could focus on being a political diplomat in post-war Europe. When an eager reporter tried to get a sensational story by asking him if he was sorry that he had never been able to have a go at Napoleon head-to-head, he was annoyed, and replied tartly that he most certainly was not. The Corsican Corporal turned Imperial Dictator was a military terror, and “Nosey” was in no mood to risk his reputation and world security on a battle with “Boney”, who he knew to be his better in the field. But history forced him back into that field to face the greatest challenge, and take part in “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

    After his escape from Elba, Napoleon had launched an amazingly sudden recoup that gave him an army back, and challenged the tide that had turned against him. He had realized that this latest campaign, now the famous hundred days, was a desperate, high-stakes venture that could go miserably wrong. He had faith in his own star of fortune, and yet still he brooded. He had never been beat in a battle which he personally led, and knew his own reputation had the ability to frighten challengers. But unlike past encounters such as Corunna and Moscow, when things went wrong and he abandoned his army to avoid personal association, there was nowhere to run if things fell apart this time. He would have to bear the brunt of any defeat; he would have to “meet his Waterloo.”

    As a commander, Wellington was tough, dogged, and effective, but had none of the romantic flourish of his opponent. He was by nature something of an introvert, and as a young man was known for being a person of extremely few words, who would sit in the corner during parties, and slip out at the very end with the hired musicians. As he matured, he did grow more self-assured and began to enjoy the party scene, surrounded by sparkling company who could appreciate his dry wit and educated conversation. But even so, he remained an enigma to most people, keeping his private feelings to himself and disliking too much attention directed at him, as if he were some sort of actor or opera star or bear being baited. He still shied away from crowds, and distrusted the mood-swings of the masses. In fact, he would not permit his soldiers to cheer him, saying, “What happens when they want to boo me?”

     Napoleon was daring, inventive, and charismatic in his leadership style, earning great personal loyalty from his men, but returning little of it. He was even more disdainful of the masses than Wellington, and yet was capable of playing a charade in order to manipulate them into following him blindly. Again, his ego was powerful enough to make him belief that his people owed them his allegiance unquestioningly, and he did believe he had any obligation to them, but only to himself and his vision of Empire. He reveled in being deified, as that was his end-game, even though he held the people in contempt as slobbering fools.

        Interestingly, Wellington and Napoleon’s differences also came to the fore in their complex relationships with women. For example, Wellington had a less-than-warm relationship with him, who initially thought him ugly and useless and basically suggested it would best for the family if he wound up as cannon fodder! This may have gone some way in generating his aloof exterior. Napoleon, on the other hand, had a warm and supportive mother, who may well have given him the confidence he needed to learn the charisma that made him a super-star. However, in later life, their attitude towards women diverged strikingly. Wellington, although he acted cold and callous towards his ditzy yet devoted wife who embarrassed him, was an undying fan of women.

    While he certainly had flings and affairs, this was more than merely a “wine, women, and song” attraction to the opposite sex, and he loved being around intellectual females and sparring with them. He cultivated a bevy of female friends with whom he would write long letters to, revealing inner thoughts and feelings he would never had expressed to men. Napoleon, on the other hand, seems to have viewed women as merely the sexual slaves of men. While he may have been excessively romantic in his language when he wanted to be, it was merely a well-cultivated game, in which he held the opposite party as a prize to be won, and little more. I can only say with a smirk that perhaps recognition of female intuition is one of those things that marks out the winners from the losers!
    As his later political life would reveal, Wellington’s aristocratic background seriously affected the way he viewed the world. It would be accurate to say that he could be something of a snob, and often preferred to write instructions to servants instead of exerting the effort to verbally communicate with them! This goes a long way in explaining why he tended not to address his troops en masse either. In Parliament, he was against reform bills that would give more power to the people, and preferred to keep the reigns of authority in the hands of the upper class. This led to the comment on the series Battlefield Britain that Wellington was “A great general, but a bad man.”

     This rather negative assessment of the man is driven by a modern distaste, but general misunderstanding of the class system. The fact is that it was the accepted norm that some were “born to rule”, as it were. Wellington was not “a bad man” for subscribing to this, but rather a man of his times and of his class with virtues and vices to balance each other off. He was no saint, but few historical characters are. We might criticize these faults, of the man and the times, but we must always take them into context. Wellington believed that when the people got too much power, it led to anarchy, which in turn led to war, such as the one he would spend much of his life fighting, and that he hated with all his heart.  

    Furthermore, his opinions and behavior were more honestly grounded than those of Napoleon, who manipulated those around him into thinking he was a man of the people, even though he viewed them as nothing more than his slaves who owed him allegiance. This may have been based on an insecurity complex, since Napoleon had to rise from humble origins to attain his position, and then clung to it greedily once obtained, always fearing that he would be toppled ultimately. Hence, he brutally suppressed freedom of speech within his domain, and allowed room for no dissension whatsoever in the ranks.

     Wellington was tough on those under his command, especially wealthy youths with romantic notions of war. “There is nothing so dangerous as a heroic young officer”, he once said, noting that their theatrics often put the operation as a whole in jeopardy. Wellington himself was a man of personal courage, but unlike Nelson, he did not court danger to prove himself, and felt that such an action would be a cheap display. Also unlike Nelson, the duke felt that almost any show of outward emotion was unmanly and unsoldierly, generating the belief that he was a cold fish. This was in fact untrue; his private letters show that he was actually a sensitive soul in many ways.

    He is famous for calling his soldiers “the scum of the earth”, and wryly commenting “I don’t know what effect they will have on the enemy, but they certainly scare me!” And yet he actually did seem to care about his men, and was unwilling to throw their lives away en masse for a quick, ill-considered victory. Wellington may not have inspired the love and adoration of his men, as Nelson did, but they respected and trusted him with their lives, and knew that (most of the time, at least!) he would not steer them wrong. It was a measured, steady relationship, but nonetheless very authentic. To summarize a quotation about Wellington from Poldark, “Where he leads, men will follow.”

    Wellington did not have a strong stomach for the brutalities of war, and the fact that he held up so well under battle situations is all the more to his credit. He learned to build up a tough-as-nails persona so as not to be affected by the horrors around him. But in reality, it was wearing on him inside. Waterloo, his last and greatest battle, saw the philosophical wall he had built up to protect himself come tumbling down…but not until he fulfilled his duty and secured victory for his cause. It was very much a part of the man’s greatness that he would not allow his own emotions to get in the way of what had to be done, nor think too far ahead of any situation. It was all about doing your duty to best of your ability in the present moment, and being content with that.

     Napoleon was a different story, in more ways than one. First of all, Napoleon didn’t seem to care a fig about the personal welfare of his men, and was callous to the blood and gore, seeing it merely as part of his own glory. Furthermore, Napoleon was extremely emotionally erratic in the decision making process. While Wellington may have been feeling sick inside during battles, he did his best to hide it under an iron veneer. Napoleon, on the other hand, would go into brooding sulking modes if things weren’t going his way in mid-battle, dooming his own cause by his lethargic inactivity. Perhaps this is the difference that was most poignant in deciding the victor at the Battle of Waterloo.

     Perhaps the contrast of these two men is the most profound thing about the Battle of Waterloo, the thing that makes the story continue to ring with a truth about life. I suppose that truth is that God uses broken instruments to challenge “geniuses”. Wellington was the man for the job, and without his dogged sense of duty and willingness to see something through that was personally painful, a tyrant would have been given the power to launch a campaign to retake Europe. Wellington was imperfect, his times were imperfect, and the system he championed was imperfect. And yet imperfection was still vitally necessary to defeat the progress of a much greater evil. It was Napoleon’s own narcissism that played into the hands of those trying to bring him down, and his genius became his own worst enemy.

     But perhaps Wellington’s flawed “perfect-ness” for the job was not in spite of his personal disdain for the bloodiness of battle, but because of it. Napoleon seemed to believe that becoming “super-human” was his destiny…that he was a god, and therefore above and beyond human suffering. Wellington may have been a blue-blooded aristocrat, but he was also very much a human, and he knew it. He might go on hyper-drive without food or sleep for days, but in the end he needed rejuvenation or he would crack, just like anyone else.  And so it was that after the battle, he fell asleep in his uniform in a cramped inn room, only to be roused and informed that his wounded aide, who had been sharing the space with him, was now dead, and then have the list of the casualties, “the butcher’s bill” read to him. The Iron Duke finally let slide the mask, and burst into tears.

    So the human had defeated the super-human. Providence knows the ways of these things. It is worth celebrating, as is liberty, unity, and the common humanity that gives history a face and a heart. Our heritage is made up of such things, and by learning from it and being true to it, we become our better selves and fulfill our own destinies as it is given us to do.
Waterloo, June 18, 1815, 200 Years Ago...



  1. Dear Pearls,

    As always, thank you so much. I was blessed with some great history teachers in grade school and in university, and now I'm blessed with another - you!


    Mack in Texas

  2. Love your blog! I am reading Bernard Cornwell's Waterloo; The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. It's a great read. Thanks so much for posting this.