Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Waterloo Eve

This evening, one hundred ninety-three years ago, British and French cavalrymen were sabreing and shooting each other in the streets of the Belgian farm town of Genappe. This nasty little skirmish, the end of a long day moving from the battlefield of Quatre Bras, fought yesterday towards the plateau of Mt. St. Jean before the village of Waterloo.

Their gaudy uniforms soaking wet from the persistent rains, the men themselves probably groggy from lack of sleep and hungry, the effect of the everpresent shortcomings of Napoleonic commissaries, the two cavalry forces struggled to a draw, the British covering their army's retreat and moving off in good order after nightfall. All the frantic, ugly hacking and stabbing, the screams of the injured men and, worse (by all contemporary accounts), the horses, the desperate scuffle in the long summer's falling darkness...all so, in the words of Victor Hugo;

"Bauduin, killed, Foy wounded, conflagration, massacre, carnage, a rivulet formed of English blood, French blood, German blood mingled in fury, a well crammed with corpses, the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed, Duplat killed, Blackmann killed, the English Guards mutilated, twenty French battalions, besides the forty from Reille's corps, decimated, three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont alone cut down, slashed to pieces, shot, burned, with their throats cut,--and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!"

Every author since 1815 has included Waterloo in a list of "Decisive Battles". E.S. Creasy published the first English language version in 1851: Waterloo was his ultimate example. Fuller published a major addition to the genre after World War Two: the second of his three volume work breaks at Waterloo. As I note above, Victor Hugo includes a wonderfully classical version of the battle in Les Miserables. You can argue with his military history, but adjective for adjective his is perhaps the most delightfully stormy of the sturm-und-drang Classicists' version of the affair. Both commanders wrote about the battle, and the engagement has generated as much and possibly more ink than the original spilled in blood.

(Note: perhaps one of the best works written about this day is "Waterloo, Day of Battle" by David Howarth (in the U.S.; in the UK it was published as "Waterloo, A Near Run Thing") which collects the first-person accounts from the British side. Another good analysis is "The Face of Battle" by John Keegan.

I've been writing about "Decisive Battles". Why? Perhaps to remind myself that there ARE times when the lives of people, peoples and states are decided by force during a time when it seems that my country is applying endless force without decision. Or reflection, analysis or judiciousness, I would add.

Or, perhaps, simply because I was and am a soldier. And, as such, have seen the works of man against man and know full well that the correct reply to the statement "War is not the answer" is usually "What is the question?"


I don't see Waterloo as a "Decisive Battle".

And the reasons why might make good starting points for Americans today to think about wars, the factors of and the outcomes of wars.

Why wasn't Waterloo a "Decisive Battle"?

1. It wasn't truly decisive; the "Hundred Days" was effectively a remake of the Leipzig Campaign and the War of the Sixth Coalition with a smaller cast but a more dramatic screenplay. If you had to pick a "Decisive Battle" of the entire Napoleonic Wars you'd pretty much have to pick the Russian Campaign of 1812. That little business put paid to what was left of the original Grand Armée as well as putting the kibosh on Nappie's "Coalition of the UnWilling". Before 1812 Napoleonic France was the bear among the kittens: it couldn't act effectively past the water's edge, but on the European continent the French were the lawn mower and everybody else's ass was pretty much the grass. Only in Spain did French enemies find a winning formula (Mix Spanish guerrilla war with a small, tactically superior British and Portuguese field army, bake in oven-like summers with a sauce of divided French command, jealousy and spite...). After 1812, and especially Leipzig, it was over: France was outnumbered, outgunned and outfought. Napoleon prolonged the agony by fighting a brilliant campaign in the French marches in 1814, but it was as clever and as useless as Bobby Lee's performance in our own Civil War. France wasn't going to win as long as the Sixth Coalition hung together, and after seeing what happened when you left Napoleon to his own humor this time they were going all the way to Paris.

Waterloo simply shortened the time between the reinitiation of war and French re-defeat. Even if the British had been beaten at Waterloo - and it WAS a near-run thing, I've always remembered the story of Wellington weighing his situation with Welleselyian coolness amid the madness and muttering grimly: "Blucher, or night." - the Austrians, Russians and the rest of the Coalition was mobilizing and would have arrived in Belgium within a month. All the British and Prussians had to do was survive, and that they'd already proved capable of that after Quatre Bras and Ligny. Napoleon, and his new Army of the North, just didn't have the killer instinct they'd had back in their championship seasons.

2. The factor that decided the fate of Napoleonic France wasn't losing this or any particular battle. It was the inability of Napoleon to transfer his success on the battlefield to a lasting political settlement that benefited France. The French were able to defeat any single enemy nation, and any coalition of enemies for twenty years. What they couldn't do; not the Revolution, not the Directory, not the Empire - was make their enemies accept both those defeats...and the "new order" in France. The animus against revolutionary France that began with revolution and regicide and carried over into the Empire founded on those footings was unshaken by repeated defeats and the deaths of millions. Only the utter destruction of the monarchies that opposed the French revolution and the occupation and reconstructon of Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia could have done that. And neither Napoleon, nor France the nation-in-arms was capable of doing that. To police post-Hapsburg Austria, post-Hohenzolleran Prussian, post-Alexandrine Russia, post-Hannoverian Britain? No. And in the absence of a replacement for those dynasties France itself probably wouldn't have been able to survive in the resulting chaos that would have enveloped Europe. For his own and his nation's security, Napoleon HAD to work with the reigning houses of Europe. It was his misfortune that they weren't willing to work with him...

So in the end, Napoleon beat his enemies again and again. He beat them from the Pyrenees to the Neva, summer, winter and spring. He left a trail of death and woe across Europe unequalled since Attila and before Hitler. And, in the end, received nothing but a monumental sarcophagus in Les Invalides and the legacy of "La Gloire".War may be a form of politics conducted with deadly force. But, if the force lacks a sound, achievable political end, the results of all that killing will be as meaningless as the rain falling on the upturned face of a dead cavalryman. Lying still, already forgotten, beside an empty country lane in the dark.


pluto said...

I'm going to argue with you Chief, but not over the particulars that you wrote about because you are totally accurate them.

The reason why Waterloo is a decisive battle is that it set the tone of military expectations and preparations for at least the next 100 years.

Napoleonic campaigns are interesting things because they tended to be quick and decisive (contrary to previous military experiences). As you've already noted, they rarely achieved long-term political success but that is beside the point. The great military and political minds of the time failed to note the lack of political success, they got stuck on the flashing swords, roaring cannons, and the thrill of quick and relatively painless victory.

This led to the very bad ideas that war:
1) is a quick and dirty struggle between gentlemen
2) that it will all be over by Christmas

This led to much of the thinking that led to the American Civil War, WWI, and countless little wars in the Affica between colonial powers and the natives. Perhaps more blood has been spilled trying to emulate Wellington's apparent success than any other battle in history and that makes it decisive to me.

FDChief said...

Interesting. And a hell of a valid point. Can't think of how many times I shook my head at 19th Century battles trying to figure out "Why the hell would someone with the sense God gave a bag of hammers do that?" (think the wall at Fredricksburg, or the Prussian Guard at St. Privat).

Uh-huh. Yep. The little man from Corsica cast a hell of a long shadow.