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Was Waterloo Necessary?

Two hundred and nine years ago this month, Napoleon experienced his final victory at the Battle of Ligny (on June 16)…and his final defeat two days later, at Waterloo. But was his final defeat really necessary?

In 2015 British biographer Andrew Roberts published an enormous and quite readable biography of Napoleon. In it he wonders if the Battle of Waterloo was really necessary. Roberts argues that after returning to France from temporary exile in Elba, Napoleon had changed.

He was now in his mid-forties and beginning to feel his age and the years of hard campaigning, and according to a letter sent to the Allied governments still meeting at the Congress of Vienna, had given up on reconstituting his empire and simply wanted to concentrate on continuing his reforms and modernizations within France. He set about instituting a new constitution which included something approximating a legislature, and started in on further building projects in Paris and reopening several cultural institutions that Louis XVIII had closed during his brief return to the throne.

The Allies, though, would have nothing to do with that, not trusting the word of the man who’d beaten them so soundly so many times. And, Roberts states, they had other reasons for wanting to remove Napoleon—namely, to stop the growth of democratic ideas and ideals that Napoleon had kept as a legacy from the French Revolution, even during his rule as emperor. So they rejected his mild letter in the Vienna Declaration:

“By thus breaking the convention which had established him in the island of Elba, Bonaparte destroys the only legal title on which his existence depended, and by appearing again in France, with projects of confusion and disorder, he has deprived himself of the protection of the law, and has manifested to the universe that there can be neither peace nor truce with him.

The powers consequently declare, that Napoleon Bonaparte has placed himself with out the pale of civil and social relations; and that, as an enemy and disturber of the tranquillity of the world, he has rendered himself liable to public vengeance.”

That vengeance happened to occur in what is now Belgium. Napoleon chose to make his stand there, in order to prevent the British and Prussian troops from being able to join together. At the Battle of Ligny, he defeated the Prussian General Blucher and kept the rest of the Prussian army pinned down…but strategic errors committed by some of his generals, most notably Marshal Ney, sowed the seeds of Napoleon’s final defeat two days later. The rest is history.

But Andrew Roberts states that history, and European civilization, might have been better off if the battle had never happened and Napoleon had been allowed to rule France. His defeat allowed the old reactionary monarchies who were still living in the early 18th century to hold onto power and crush the nascent movements toward democracy that were sprouting across the continent. The bloody revolutions of the 1840s might not have happened if constitutional monarchies had been adopted…and the world might have been a very different place as a result.

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4 thoughts on “Was Waterloo Necessary?”

  1. Biographers usually greatly admire their subject. Napoleon did a lot of good during the years he reigned. And he might very well have been bent on developing a democratic government for France. But he also committed France to very long and very expensive wars of conquest. He crowned himself emperor, taking the crown from the hands of the Pope to place it on his own head.

    The rest of Europe could not trust him. They saw his mild, almost meek, proposal to get him off the island of Elba as just another ploy to regain his empire. I’ve read texts that showed Napoleon’s letters to gather a new army almost up to the day of his death.

    If he’d showed any inclination toward democracy prior to his defeat and 1st exile someone might have listened to him. A leopard cannot change his spots.

    Waterloo was not just an attempt to suppress democratic ideals, it was removal of an obvious threat to peace and prosperous trade. Perhaps the aftermath was mishandled. But in the minds of the rest of Europe, getting rid of Napoleon permanently was necessary.

  2. Spain would not have agreed that Napoleon remaining in power was a positive thing.

    There is a reason it was during the French attempt to have annexed Spain as a subordinate arrondissement of France under his rule that the concept/designation “guerilla” came into usage. The Spanish hated the French, and not only that horrid Spanish royal family. So much the Spanish hated the French in Spain they allowed the return of that utterly feckless royal house to rule. The French did not endear themselves to the Spanish at all, whether of the Church, the State or the farmer. They were bloody and brutal, which is a very large reason for the Dos de Mayo uprising in Madrid, and why Spain (and Portugal) were so hospitable to Wellington’s forces, keeping the Peninsular War in effect for the duration of the French occupation.

    O course the battle of dominance between France and Spain was already centuries old by the time of Napoleon.

    Evidently though, the British fixed that, for at least the next couple of centuries. 🙂

  3. I confess I’ve had a chequered history with Roberts over the years: sometimes, I’ll generally agree with him; others, I couldn’t disagree more. This is one of the latter cases.

    For one thing, it wasn’t a case European leaders “not trusting the word of the man who’d beaten them so soundly so many times”, it was a case of finding themselves once again having to deal with the machinations of a man who had consistently and violently tried (and very nearly succeeded) to bend a huge portion of the world to his will. The subjugation of Spain, the ‘adventures’ in Egypt, the push into Russia–the man was not to be trifled with, nor would he settle for anything less than total domination. To suggest that Napoleon would suddenly turn towards democratic reform simply because he was middle-aged suggests a level of naivete that historians often succumb to when they want to stand out from the crowd (“How can I make my biography of Napoleon different from all the others?”).

    More to the point, even if he had won that particular battle, or the allies decided not to fight it, there would inevitably have been another war/series of wars, which would euqally inevitably have ended with a French defeat. Napoleon’s single greatest achievement was in uniting the world against the threat of an all-powerful France, and it is unlikely that those adversaries would have stood down just because of a single defeat (now matter how big), when they had continued fighting after all those earlier ones. Plus, the man was always going to die at some point, with or without input from foreign armies–and the resultant chaos would have led to similar backlash both in France and abroad (albeit X number of years later). When a nation/empire’s stability rests entirely on a single personality, the whole thing will tumble to the ground the moment the coffin is sealed.

  4. Additionally, think of how fierce was the hatred of the Spanish for Napoleon’s occupation that they’d allied themselves with protestant England, which had been bete noir of the Roman Church and Spain for how many centuries already? Just think of what the Brits had been doing to Spain’s treasure ships in the Caribbean and South America, post the Armada’s failures.

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