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How the French won Waterloo (or think they did)

Napoleon’s decisive defeat? Nonsense! It was a moral victory. Or at least a score draw…

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

Three weeks ago, a journalist from Le Figaro asked France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who would be attending the 200th anniversary ceremony at Waterloo. ‘When is it?’ was the reply.

Two centuries on, the French are still in denial about Waterloo. To understand why, you have to bear in mind a quotation by the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, who declared that: ‘The war of wars, the combats of combats, is England against France; all the rest are mere episodes.’ The defeat at Waterloo was the humiliation of humiliations, almost impossible to countenance.

French chauvinists still refuse to accept that Napoleon really lost. (Napoleon himself had declared: ‘History is a series of lies on which we all agree.’) For example Dominique de Villepin, French prime minister from 2005 to 2007 and author of several books about Napoleon, called Waterloo a ‘defeat [that] shines with the aura of victory’. His argument seems to be that by standing alone against Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria (to name only his most important adversaries), Napoleon was the tragic hero of his era, who effectively scored a moral victory on 18 June 1815.

Even this line, though, is subtle compared to Victor Hugo, who appears to have believed that the defiance of General Cambronne changed the whole meaning of the battle. ‘The Garde knows how to die,’ Cambronne is supposed to have pronounced, ‘but not how to surrender.’ In fact Cambronne, who lived on until 1842, denied saying anything of the sort. Another version tells that when called upon to surrender, he had shouted back ‘Merde!’ ‘Unleashing deadly lightning with such a word,’ wrote Hugo, ‘counts as victory.’


Cambronne’s riposte became part of French mythology, breeding notions of ultimate triumph. Villepin explains that after Waterloo, impoverished France turned its back on the British-led Industrial Revolution and concentrated on small-scale production — of clothes, scents, luxury goods — creating industries of global significance today. Where, by contrast, are England’s factories?

French historians who acknowledge the débâcle at Waterloo explain it away. Napoleon had haemorrhoids at the time, they remind us. There is also talk of a bladder problem, even syphilis — anything to establish he was below peak fitness for the big match.

Then of course he was let down by his marshals — Ney led the cavalry into attack too early in the battle; Soult contrived to lose vital orders; de Grouchy breakfasted on a strawberries when he should have been scouring the countryside for the Prussians.

The most virulent French criticism has been reserved for the greatest marshal of all: God. Heavy rain the night before the battle created sticky mud which made it difficult for Napoleon to move his cannon, and delayed his attack. June is Belgium’s fourth wettest month; nevertheless Hugo declared the downpour supernatural. In Les Misérables, he states that Napoleon ‘bothered God’, who considered that the Corsican was usurping the course of history. Hence the monsoon. ‘Waterloo was not a battle,’ Hugo concludes, ‘it was a change in direction of the universe.’

Even so, the Bonapartistes believe, Wellington had been soundly beaten, and was saved only by the arrival of Blucher’s Prussian troops. In fact, Wellington would not have given battle but for the assurance of Blucher’s support. Nevertheless, in Napoleon’s report, dictated two days after the battle, he stated that by late afternoon, ‘the army was able to look with satisfaction upon a battle won and the battlefield in our possession’. He went on to describe the Prussians’ intervention and the subsequent French rout. The clear implication was that the day had been tied one-all, and he wanted a rematch.

Many French voices are unaffected by all the mythologising. Politicians of the left are disinclined towards sympathy for a war leader who censored the press and reintroduced slavery in his colonies. Former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin recently published a tome with the title Le Mal Napoléonien. But to such reasoning the Emperor’s devotees always have a simple answer: ‘Merde!

Stephen Clarke’s How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did) is available in French under the shortened title Comment Les Français Ont Gagné Waterloo.


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