The real victor of Waterloo?

“La Garde recule!” The cries went out as the once mighty French Imperial Guard disintegrated, along with it the hopes of Napoleon Bonaparte and a restored French Empire.[1] We all know the history of Waterloo; the torrential rain, the struggles for Hougomont and Le Haye Sainte, the massive French cavalry charge, the Imperial Guard’s attack on Wellington’s center, and the French army’s collapse. Despite the final defeat of Napoleon on that soggy Belgian field, his reputation survives practically unscathed and continues to influence how we understand the battle of Waterloo.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo and plans are underway to conduct an impressive reenactment of the battle with 5,000 re-enactors and 240,000 spectators in attendance. The man selected to play the role of Napoleon, Frank Samson, sparked controversy when he asserted that Bonaparte was “a political virtuoso and one of the greatest men the world has ever known” and that “in terms of public relations, in terms of historical importance, it’s clear that he won Waterloo.” Samson also contends that the Duke of Wellington, long heralded as the victor of Waterloo, was a “frightful Englishman that no one has heard of…”[2]

Samson’s comments reveal a truth about our historical memory of the battle: Napoleon’s army was destroyed, his reputation survived. While exiled on St Helena, Napoleon exonerated himself and blamed his subordinates for his defeats.[3] The man historians credit with the military victory, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, remains an obscure figure. Bonaparte’s last war, the one waged for his prestige, succeeded where his military campaigns failed. “My downfall raises me to infinite heights,” he once said.[4] If Samson’s remarks reflect the public’s view of Waterloo, Napoleon is smiling in his mausoleum.

[1] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, Collector’s ed., vol. II,(Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1991), 1089.

[2] Victoria Ward, “French rewrite Battle of Waterloo to cast Napoleon as the victor,” The Teledgraph, January 28, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11373655/French-rewrite-Battle-of-Waterloo-to-cast-Napoleon-as-the-victor.html

[3] Chandler, Campaigns, 1091.

[4]Ian Donnachie and Carmen Lavin, ed., From Enlightenment to Romanticism: Anthology I (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003) 117, https://books.google.com/books?id=jyy_HJrYBDIC&lpg=PA117&ots=mRQmDW_iw6&dq=my%20downfall%20raises%20me%20to%20infinite%20heights&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

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