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A historian’s view: why Waterloo is significant

In this video, Zack White, a Masters graduate from the University of Southampton, explains why he thinks Waterloo is such a significant European event
ZACK WHITE: Hi. I’m Zack White. I’m a Masters graduate from the University of Southampton. And I’m here today to discuss why the Battle of Waterloo was so important. One of the most obvious reasons for why Waterloo is so significant in European history is, of course, that it marks the climax of the Napoleonic Wars. But Waterloo is far more than simply its position on a timeline. However, Waterloo is also primarily significant because it makes a fantastic story. And I think that’s what really appeals to the public. Waterloo marks the culmination of two great military careers. It was the final battle for both Napoleon and for Wellington.
For Napoleon and Wellington not to have met at Waterloo would have meant that Wellington’s final battle would have been the Battle of Toulouse. And this would’ve been an enormous disappointment. Toulouse, in April 1814, was actually a futile battle. It was fought just days before news of Napoleon’s resignation arrived in Southern France. And in some respects, it was a loss for Wellington. He actually lost more men than his opponent, Marshal Soult. But it was the fact that the French then withdrew in the night after the battle which made it a tactical victory for Wellington. With Waterloo, there is no such discrepancy. There is no question that this is Wellington at his greatest.
Now, it can’t be denied that the involvement of the Prussians was crucial. If it hadn’t been for the Prussian assistance, then Napoleon and Wellington would never fought at Mont-Saint-Jean on the 18th of June. However, one of the other great things about Waterloo in terms of how it makes such a fantastic story is that for scholars, they’re able to identify some of the great hallmarks in Napoleonic warfare in the battle. For Wellington, we can see a fantastic eye for the terrain, which he has become so famous for. We also have Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, which is a tactic which he used many times during the Peninsular War.
And finally, for those of us who feel that Wellington was a defensive general– which is open to debate– Wellington clearly fought a defensive victory, waiting for the Prussians to arrive. From Napoleon, we see some of the classic tactics which he employed throughout his career, notably the use of columns to move his men forward to attack the British lines, the use of his elite Imperial Guard, which were broken for the first time at Waterloo, and also the use of artillery, amassing a grand battery to bombard the Allied lines.
From the Wellington papers, which are held here at the University of Southampton’s Hartley Library, it was interesting to see just how irritated Wellington had become in the weeks before Waterloo with the British government. Wellington, at one point, goes so far as to accuse the British government of not taking the war seriously enough. And this was a major accusation. Wellington had made accusations against the government before in terms of their lack of support of the war, particularly during the Peninsular War. And I’m thinking here particularly of the time between 1810 and 1812, when the government was far less stable. In 1815 however, that wasn’t the issue. And Wellington’s anger was plain to see and also very interesting to observe.
The last, and probably the most interesting factor which I discovered, was based on some work that I did with caricatures during the time. Some of my previous work on caricatures during the Peninsular War have identified a very Anglocentric focus. During much of the Peninsular War, there was very little acknowledgement of the contribution that other nations were making to the struggle against Napoleon. Now that did change towards the end of the period, particularly by 1814. But there is always a sense that Britain is taking the heaviest load. Britain is lending the greatest hand to the struggle. And that continued at Waterloo despite the involvement of the Prussians.
Although the Prussian involvement was acknowledged, it was invariably the case that Wellington, or the British, were shown to be taking the greatest involvement in the battle. And this is perhaps understandable, given that it was Wellington’s defensive stance that initiated the Battle of Waterloo. But nonetheless, it’s possible, through looking at these caricatures, to see where the dominant myth and the tendency to write the Prussians out of history when it comes to the Battle of Waterloo has come from. And so that summarises why I feel, at least, that the Battle of Waterloo is one of the most important battles in European history.

Zack White, a Masters graduate from the University of Southampton, explains why he thinks Waterloo is such a significant and long-remembered event in European history.

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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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