Saturday, 15 January 2011

Napoleon, Wellington, Waterloo and the significance of insignificant things

A couple of nights ago I watched a fascinating documentary about Napoleon Bonaparte and his ill-fated escape from Elba, and his return to France. As one of the historians said, the whole four or five months of 1815 could not have been written as a myth or legend any better than what unfolded.

Napoleon as everyone should know was the great general of France that let his sociopathic delusions of grandeur, get the better of him, by becoming Emperor of France and attempting to conquer the whole of Europe. He nearly succeeded, and only the Russian winter and a certain General sticking a thorn in his side down in Spain and Portugal, stopped Napoleon from achieving his dream.

Of course we all know who that general was; he was the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley.

In February 1815, Napoleon (in what would be called the ‘hundred days’) with a tiny army of around 1000 of his greatest and most trusted troops, the Imperial Guard, landed near Cannes, he was not welcomed with open arms, the people did not want the little tyrant back. Napoleon did not let this stop him though, he knew if he could get the army on his side then France would be his once more. Arriving near Grenoble, in the centre of France, Napoleon was greeted by the new Royal French army; the monarchy had been restored after many years of the republic. In charge of this army was Marshal Ney, once part of Napoleons Grand Army, now supposedly Napoleons enemy. Bonaparte took one of his many gambles and stood facing this massive force, and he gave a speech, a speech that would lead to him retaking France and eventually meeting his nemesis Wellington at Waterloo.

Throughout Europe the fear generated by Napoleons return was tremendous, and the major powers thought it could be catastrophic, unless he was defeated, all the countries turned to Wellington. Two ragtag armies were being assembled in Belgium, one lead by Marshal Blucher, the ageing Prussian General, the other lead by Wellington.

Napoleon being Napoleon decided to ignore everything he had told his country, about not wanting to fight anymore battles or wars. Raised another Grand Army and went to Belgium to face Blucher and Wellington, he reasoned that the enemy was divided and this division may lead to their downfall. He noticed a split between the two armies and two full advantage of it. He faced Blucher’s Prussians and defeated them; he faced a small British force and could only manage a stalemate. He thought he had nearly won the battle, and he headed towards Brussels.

On the road to Brussels was a little known town called Waterloo, where Wellington had some years earlier, in a kind of sixth sense sort of way, decided he would be able to fight a battle there, if ever it was required. As he had predicted it was required and Wellington placed his troops on a ridge overlooking the whole battlefield; Napoleon was immediately at a disadvantage. As well as this, he had made a grave error of judgement, Bonaparte had sent 30,000 of his troops east supposedly chasing Blucher’s defeated army back to Prussia, but Blucher had went north and was waiting to help Wellington when the time arrived.

So to one of the most significant days in the history of Europe and the World; 17th June 1815, Napoleon with around 70,000 troops faced Wellingtons 60,000 troops. Blucher’s 50,000 were a day’s march away. I will not bore you with the details of the battle suffice to say, Napoleon did not have one of his better days in the field and was eventually routed by Wellington’s superior strategy. Napoleon showed his true colours in defeat and blamed everyone but himself for the loss. He was then exiled to St Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic where he died 6 years later.

The thing that fascinated me apart from the fact it’s an incredible part of history, is the fact it is a sort of mythical battle Waterloo, two great generals who had never fought each other directly facing off for the future of Europe. How significant a battle it turned out to be, there was not another battle in Europe for hundred years afterwards (unless you count the Crimea). There is also the similarities with Hitler and his Wehrmacht matching across Europe, losing in the Russian winter. There is a quote from a captured German general during the Second World War, he said, “There are two people who did not know it gets cold during winter in Russia, Hitler and Napoleon”.

I also find it strange the way Napoleon is thought of in history as being some kind of great hero, which clearly he wasn’t. He was no different to Hitler in many ways, OK Hitler was the more evil man, but they were both deluded sociopaths, megalomaniacs, who had a mass of good fortune, and started to think of themselves as god like, and invincible, which eventually lead to the downfall.

I am not sure what point I am trying to make apart from the fact of the significance of insignificant situations and circumstances, and how these can turn into dreadful misery for many concerned. The fact that power hungry megalomaniacs never seen to learn from past megalomaniacs, I also find interesting; as Hitler was well aware of Napoleon and wanted to emulate him.

In the end I just marvelled at the mythical status of the battle of Waterloo, and thought of other similar battles with similar significance in history. From Alexander the Great, at Gaugamela, or Hannibal, Julius Caesar, William the Conquer at Hastings, Henry V, at Agincourt. Or Battle of Blenheim, and Nelson at Trafalgar. The significance of the Battle of Yorktown, and of course the many battles throughout the first and second world wars. How many of them hinged on small insignificant things, and how easily history might be different if those insignificant things had not happened or others had happened in their place.

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