At the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and at Hyde Park Corner in London, you will find triumphal arches. The first (the Arc de Triomphe) celebrates the great victories of Napoleon Bonaparte; the second (the Wellington Arch) celebrates his defeat – at the Battle of Waterloo, 200 years ago this year.
From modest beginnings in Corsica, Napoleon became the leader of the largest empire seen in Europe since Roman times. He is famous as a military leader but was also an enlightened legislator. From the chaos of post-revolutionary France, Napoleon brought about order, meritocracy, equality before the law and sound finances. He was also a ruthless French nationalist who readily invaded any nation with whom he could not form an alliance. He expanded the French Empire south west to the Iberian Peninsula, and eastwards into the Low Countries and the German states.
However, meritocracy did not extend to the rule of annexed nations and his habit of imposing members of his family as puppet kings generated opposition to the French Empire. Already opposed to France was Great Britain, who had severely limited Napoleon’s ambitions by virtually destroying his navy at Trafalgar in 1805.
Matters came to a head in the summer of 1815. A coalition of nations opposed to the French Empire, consisting of the UK, Russia, Prussia and Austria, decided to invade France itself in an attempt to overthrow Bonaparte. Napoleon marched into the Netherlands to intercept the coalition armies, and the two sides met at Waterloo, south of Brussels.
The French took the field with 73,000 well-trained and experienced troops. The allies had 68,000 British and Dutch soldiers under the command of the Duke of Wellington, with 50,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher closing rapidly on the battlefield.
Battle was joined on the morning of the 18th June and continued throughout the day with successive waves of French cavalry attacks on the defensive British formations known as Squares. These were square formations of infantry; 500 men four ranks deep on all sides of a 60-foot (18 metre) square, with light artillery pieces in the centre. Time and again the feared French Cuirassiers attacked these squares, but the their horses could not be made to charge the solid line of bayonets facing them. Once they turned to retreat, they were prey to rifle fire and artillery at the centre of the squares.
Nevertheless the French regrouped and in the afternoon, after repeated infantry and artillery assaults, the initiative began to swing Napoleon’s way. This could have proved decisive until the arrival of 50,000 Prussians under Blücher. This turned the tide back towards the Allies. At 22:00, Blücher and Wellington met at Napoleon’s former headquarters at an inn called La Belle Alliance and shook hands. It signalled victory. Wellington called it “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.
Napoleon fled the field and tried to leave Europe for the United States. The British, however, had blocked all the ports and he eventually surrendered himself to a British captain. He was sent into exile on the remote island of St Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840 the French King Louis Philippe was given permission to return Napoleon’s remains to France where they were laid to rest in a tomb at Les Invalides, the military hospital.
The Duke of Wellington returned to Britain, entered politics and in 1828 became Prime Minister. He died in 1852 aged 83 and is buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was given a state funeral, one of the largest ever held in London.
The Battle of Waterloo changed the face of Europe and led to 50 years of peace. It also gave rise to the word “Waterloo” being used to denote doom, destitution and defeat. And it resulted in the building of an arch at a busy intersection on the west side of London.