Military History

Blogging about the Battlefield since 2005

The Importance of Waterloo-200 years later

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on June 19, 2015

June 18 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo and Europe is abuzz (at least western Europe) with a major reenactment event occurring this weekend (they are even live-streaming it). There is no doubt of the importance of the battle to history, but its importance remains today. It cemented Britain’s position in the world for the next hundred years and laid the foundations for Europe as we now it today. It represented the defeat of the ideals of revolutionary France, much to the relief of monarchists across Europe. Time discussed the importance of the battle, while The Telegraph provided several great stories on the event, including advocating the study of the battle by students. Despite such major subsequent events in military history, as both World Wars, the Cold War, and the current War on Terror, why do we still gravitate to Waterloo?

One reason is because of its importance to the study of warfare. Waterloo ended a long period of conflict between Napoleonic France and the rest of Europe not under his control. His leadership abilities, as well as those of Wellington and Blucher influenced the study of warfare and the thinkers of military history and strategy for years to come (i.e. Napoleonic tactics), which were used in subsequent wars in America, especially the Civil War. Waterloo was such a stunning victory for the Allies over a foe that, until his ill-fated invasion of Russia, had largely been undefeated that understanding how Napoleon was defeated was viewed as essential to future commanders for learning how to overcome odds and achieve victory.

Waterloo’s paving of the way towards our modern understanding of Europe cannot be ignored. It is a perfect example of international cooperation to defeat a common enemy, as Prussian and British forces united to beat the French and save western Europe. As Time pointed out in their article, it played a role in the eventual conceptualization of NATO and the UN, as Wellington’s army consisted of Prussians, British, the Dutch, and other smaller German states, coalesced into a grand alliance. While not the first example of such alliances in warfare, it is one of the more important because of the level of change the outcome of the battle had on European history and geography.

Finally, Waterloo seems to fascinate us because it is one of the last examples in military history of a major pitched battle of forces standing shoulder to shoulder across a field in brightly colored uniforms. Historical wargamers remain enamored with the Napoleonic period, with one man fighting the battle in 6mm (you can view a video of it here). It is one of the last, if not the last, major battle involving flintlock muskets, as technological changes coming by the mid-19th century would render the tactics in the battle obsolete, though leaders still used them, with deadly results (i.e. American Civil War).

As Europe reflects on 100 years since World War I, the next major conflagration to consume the continent, they reflect on the battle that ended an era, while setting in motion the forces that contributed in various ways to that next European war. Waterloo will always have a place in history and continues to provide valuable lessons to succeeding generations. We remember Wellington’s stunning victory, which propelled him to a successful career in British politics, including Prime Minister, as well as a man exiled in defeat, having once come close to being the master of Europe. How different Europe might be were it not for one battle 200 years ago.

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4 Responses to “The Importance of Waterloo-200 years later”

  1. “would render the tactics in the battle obsolete, though leaders still used them, with deadly results (i.e. American Civil War).”

    I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say “obsolete”, as that implies that there was a viable alternative (though it certainly made attacks increasingly expensive). Command/Control/Communication didn’t begin to catch up to the advances in weaponry until after WWI was in progress and even then in a very rudimentary way. Portable radio technology was, in my opinion, the biggest game changer that allowed information and direction to flow quickly between higher headquarters and dispersed units.

    • Gene,

      Excellent point! I guess where I was going with it was that with the advent of the rifled musket with its much longer range of accuracy the tactics of Napoleonic warfare would rendered obsolete because of the greater potential for higher casualty rates, which could cause two opposing armies to annihilate each other, with neither force attaining a clear victory. That said, your point about no viable alternative seems rather sound, as the influence of Napoleon and the tactics of his time were so pervasive in officer training that there was little room for other possibilities. Considering that you didn’t really see a break with them in America until the later stages of the Civil War, and even then in only a few cases, lends historical credence to your observation. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Reblogged this on First Night History.

  3. I enjoyed the video of Steve’s 28-year dedication to his representation of the battle. Now that’s a hobby!

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