Allan Mallinson

Four ways to win Waterloo

If you want Sharpe-like drama, go for Bernard Cornwell. For Eurocentric revisionism, go for Tim Clayton. If you’re short of time, there’s Brendan Simms’s 80 pager. But in a class of its own is former soldier Robert Kershaw making ‘order out of disorder’

The Kaiser’s war deprived Britain of her centenary celebrations of the victory at Waterloo. It also set the propagandists something of a challenge, for the Kaiser himself had sent an aide-de-camp to the British embassy the day after the declaration of war deploring ‘the action of Great Britain in joining with other nations against her old allies at Waterloo’. A hundred years and all that had passed therein evidently counted for nothing to the imperial mind, though the emperor appeared to have forgotten that Belgian troops had also stood with the allies at Waterloo.

The Times’s leader writer on 18 June 1915 made a good fist of it, however:

A year back we little thought that the centenary of Waterloo would find us again in arms for the cause they [‘our fathers’] so signally vindicated. England fought then for the liberty of Europe and for the safety of these islands, of which that liberty has ever been the necessary bulwark. It is for these things she is fighting now, constrained by the same motives and animated by the same spirit. That is why our enemies of that famous day are now our brothers in arms, and that is why our allies of a hundred years ago are now embattled against us. It was Waterloo which led to the developments of French history that have ended in the close friendship of England and of France…

No such embattlements look like marring the bicentenary of Waterloo, and whatever publishing ventures were rudely curtailed in 1914, 100 years on there is evidently no check. And as in war, beating the rival to the ground is a good move — that and surprise, or in the case of a battle that has been so written about that it might be thought there is nothing more to reveal, novelty and drama.

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