Last August, the 1914 industry breathed a collective sigh of relief as the anniversary of the start of the First World War passed with great fanfare. It marked the end of almost a decade of commemoration and reflection. Last month, there was similar though much softer exhalation from the Waterloo 200 committee whose work culminated in the presentation of the “New Waterloo Dispatch” in London on Saturday. This event took its cue from the dramatic arrival of the Duke of Wellington’s original “Waterloo Dispatch”, announcing his victory at what has now become the East India Club on St. James’s Square. Re-enacting the moment that Major Percy presented two captured French eagles as evidence of the victory to the Prince Regent, the scene was performed on numerous occasions across the capital in glorious sunshine, two of which I witnessed, first at the Wellington Arch opposite the Duke’s London home, Apsley House, and then outside the Atheneum Club in Pall Mall.
It was a festive occasion made even more enjoyable by the musical accompaniment of bands from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Low Countries. I particularly enjoyed the performers sent by the Rifle Brigade who serenaded us with soothing summertime music as well as the expected ceremonial trumpets. The overall effect was that of a good-natured Volksfest rather than a chauvinistic display, though I suppose the repeated renditions of theme from the James Bond movie Skyfall may have been a subtle exercise in British soft power. The assembled tourists, who had no doubt been hoping to catch a glimpse of the Household Cavalry passing through the Arch on their way to and from the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, took this additional piece of pageantry in their stride.
What made the whole exercise all the more remarkable was its consistent framing within the spirit of international collaboration. The new exhibition on the battle at the Wellington Arch made this abundantly clear. Though small, it provides a remarkably full and nuanced sense of the contribution of the allied powers to the campaign in general and the battle in particular. The narrative begins with a map of western Europe showing the various coalition armies arrayed against Napoleon in June 1815, which included forces in Spain and Italy as well as two huge Russian and Austrian forces assembling in central Europe. A video-map of the battle, which provides a blow by blow summary of the day’s proceedings, gives full credit to all the formations involved. A helpful poster gives a breakdown of Wellington’s army, showing it to have been only 35 per cent British even at the start of the battle, with the rest made up of Hanoverians, Nassauers, Brunswickers, Dutch and Belgians. Once the Prussians under Marshal Bluecher arrived in strength, of course, Germans predominated on the field by a large margin. The inevitable question “Who won?” is answered by the exhibition by stating that “nowadays most historians accept that the question is unimportant and that it was their cooperation that enabled victory.”
Likewise, the website of the organising Committee of Waterloo 200 stresses that the ceremonies were not intended to be an “Anglo-centric triumphalist occasion” (http://www.nam.ac.uk/waterloo200/about/the-new-waterloo-dispatch-2015/). The new Waterloo dispatch, which a green-clad rifleman proudly displayed for all to see next to Major Percy, places Wellington’s report in the tradition of Nelson’s famous “Trafalgar Prayer” of 1805 which called on the almighty to “grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory”. In case anyone was in any doubt what was meant, it also quoted Victor Hugo’s famous words about “Europe” being an “idea whose time has come”.
In the Newsnight debate on the eve of the anniversary between two acclaimed Waterloo authors Andrew Roberts and Tim Clayton, broadcaster Evan Davies made frequent allusion to the contemporary resonances of the battle, which sits oddly within the current debate about Britain. Here the text of the New Waterloo dispatch is suggestive, but ambivalent. “What Nelson had begun,” we are told, “Wellington and Bluecher had now completed, the birth of the great vision of a united continent of Europe, not dominated by any one nation.” It all depends, of course, on what one understands by united – close cooperation between sovereign states or full political unity – and what one means by avoiding “domination by any one nation”, which could mean the old “balance of power” or its transcendence through a new all-encompassing union. History itself gives us no single answer. In this sense we will all, Eurosceptics and Europhiles, be able to draw on the legacy of Waterloo for inspiration during the great debate ahead.
Brendan Simms is the author of The longest afternoon. The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo (Allen Lane, 2014), a study of the epic defence of La Haye Sainte by King’s German legion.