Friday, June 18, 2010

If WATERLOO Had Gone the Other Way

The Battle of Waterloo was won by the Allies- Britain, Prussia, Russia, Austria and other smaller countries like Belgium- against Napoleon's Grand Armee 195 years ago today. It was a defining moment in history, yet from so long in the past, it's hard today to see how it changed the world- or how things might have been if the French had won. It's just really hard for people in today's world to grasp the battle, what led up to it, just how long Europe had been engaged in this enormous struggle, and why in the world Britain had to get involved at all.

I'm not going to get into all of that- history is easy to find all over the internet if you're curious about it. And if you really want resources, just ask me and I'll give them to you. But I will tell you what Britain's stake was and how their loss would have made everything different. This is just my opinion of what would have happened, and of course nobody really knows. And a lot of people disagree, but here's how I see it.

Throughout the entirety of Napoleon's hold on the Continent, Britain remained the thorn in Napoleon's side. Britain held supremacy on the seas, and Britain controlled a large part of the world- or at least controlled most of the trade. Napoleon might control all of Europe, but the world eluded him as long as Britain lay outside his grasp. He had made attempts at Britain and in 1805 it had looked like he might succeed. He had massed a huge flotilla of flat-bottomed boats to ferry his massed army of over 200,000 across the English Channel. Then suddenly he abandoned the entire project and dashed off across the Continent to answer a newer threat. The truth was, his flotilla had little chance of success and his craft were not suited for a Channel crossing.

And before this, there had been Trafalgar, when the British soundly defeated the French and Spanish fleets. Late in 1806, Napoleon issued the Continental System to counter the British Embargo and to try to isolate Britain from all European trade. Although effective, Britain still had the rest of the world for trade, and France did not.

So Napoleon had to conquer Britain or his Empire was doomed. But in 1815, he was cornered. He had recently escaped Elba and swept through France, gathering supporters in an amazing blitz. The frightened Allies once more prepared for battle, knowing it would take all of them jointly cooperating to keep what they had regained and finally defeat the Corsican Monster. At Waterloo, Mt. St. Jean to be more exact, Wellington was still without most of his Allies when Napoleon attacked. Blucher's Prussians were close but still dangerously separated, and the Austrians and Russians too far away yet to make it in time. But the ferocity of the fighting British Allies kept the day going until the amazing old man, Blucher, finally managed to battle his way to the field of contest, catching the French off guard from their right, and trapped in the pincers. The day was done, and Napoleon fleeing back toward Paris.

What if Blucher had not succeeded in his fierce flurry to reach Wellington? Napoleon was very good at catching his enemy divided, and he had done this once more, so it could have succeeded. What if Wellington had made a few more errors, in site, perhaps (no, he would never have made THAT mistake- he was a genius in picking battle sites). Or what if his troops in the little chateau of Hougoumont had failed in their desperate daylong battle to hold Wellington's right? It would have all been over, and French flags would have flown on the ridge at Mt. St. Jean.

Austria, Russia, Prussia would not have mattered. They would have crumbled as they always had in the past. Although Wellington had wisely made his retreat plan along with his battle plan, the French would have followed them across the Channel in every ship that could be commandeered, and with a good part of the British Army still at sea trying to get to Belgium, the defense of Britain would have been meager. Pitchforks and cudgels just don't do much against muskets and cannons.

When France captured Britain, they would get with it all the navy, the merchant vessels, the trade routes, the colonies- literally the wealth of the world uncontested. Whether they could have held it is another question, since everything they had held had been a precarious balance all along. But the new United States of America wouldn't have contested. All the Spanish and Portuguese world was not strong enough.

In short, France would have become the great world empire, instead of Britain. Not only would we all speak French, but we would be operating under the Napoleonic Code of Law. The French Revolution had in truth been dead in France from the beginning of Napoleon's Empire. Independence as we have known it would have been different, if not dead. And in Napoleon's Empire, people who disagreed or failed to live up to his demands didn't last long. His demands were not always rational, and always any failure had to have its scapegoat. Not to say that doesn't happen now to at least some degree, but it was a way of life in France's domain then.

How much we would have evolved from that, it's hard to say. Modern France is not an example for this because it is based as much on Napoleon's defeat as his successes. But it's pretty clear our world today would be far different. Nor can we even be sure whether we'd like it or not.

So tell me, what's your take on it?


  1. I actually think Austria, Russia, and Prussia wouldn't have caved this time around. Possibly Napoleon might've been allowed to maintain his throne, but I don't think he would've dominated Europe again, and I really don't see him being able to mount an invasion of England post-Trafalgar, and maybe even post-Battle of the Nile.

    I do think the world would look different insofar as Waterloo gave an extra boost to Britain's becoming the superpower of the 19th century. Also, Wellington would have less personal prestige, which would doubtless have repercussions for British politics in the first half of the 19th century. Maybe Catholic emancipation is slower in coming, but Parliamentary reform comes a few years sooner?

  2. The issue of the allies is crucial to what would have happened. It's hard to be sure but many authorities think Russia and Austria deliberately stalled in linking up with Wellington. Why is also a well-debated question. I think they wanted to see what would happen so they could switch sides if they had to. But Russia had developed an enormous hatred for the French, and they were beginning to recover from their horrendous 1812 losses.

    Prussia under Blucher's leadership was incredibly impressive. But if he had been defeated, what would be left of Prussia's resistance? Austria was very debatable, but they did not appear to want to fight under Wellington at least.

    The other really scary issue was that Britain's experienced troops weren't at Waterloo and they weren't at home.

    If Napoleon could have found the ships is also a question, since his flotilla had been a disastrous failure. On the other hand, Britain managed to get a lot of soldiers and horses to BElgium in a pretty short period of time.

  3. And there's another big fly in this ointment: Napoleon's knowledge and comprehension of sea power was very limited, but he didn't want to listen to any true expert who didn't tell him what he wanted to hear. This was why his flotilla of 1805 was such a disaster. And he had no other living expert who could actually advise him after that. Of course he might have done the logical thing and let the captains of the vessels do the planning and sailing, but that does sound so very un-Napoleonic, doesn't it?

  4. Bonepart's navy never recovered from the defeats Nelson inflicted -- and I don't think you can underestimate the logistics of trying to handle an invasion across the channel. The water and weather kept Bonapart at bay for years.

    That said, if Bonapart had managed a win at Waterloo, the best he could really hope for would be to negotiate a peace for Franch that would have left him in power. The battle itself was a slugfest, but Bonapart might have been able to turn it in his favor if he'd thown in his Imperial Guard -- he never did. Given his loses (even with a win), he'd have had to condsolidate his hoding, rebuild again before he'd have a hope to cross to England. So negotiation (not his strong suit) would have been the only option.

    And it's quite possible Wellington would have regrouped and come after him and fought yet another battle -- Wellington was also the master of organized retreats that served to keep his troops in fighting order for another day.

    I think the end result would have been the defeat of Bonepart -- he wasn't the young healthy genius that he'd been before his exile. History would have taken a small dip, but not a wide turn.

  5. I agree with Shannon. The best Napoleon could have done is hold onto his throne a few more years. France had lost so many men already throughout the Napoleonic wars, there wouldn't have been enough manpower left for an invasion. The country was worn out and exhausted of supplies and men. Waterloo was his last throw of the dice and everyone knew it.

  6. I'm with Susanna and Shannon. I do not think Napoleon would have again achieved power.

    Had Napoleon won, the Allies would have regrouped to fight again. Wellington would not have given up. I don't think any of the Allies believed that this battle would be so decisive. They were in it for another long haul.

    Napoleon did not pick the field of battle for Waterloo, by the way. Wellington picked the spot, land he was familiar with from having been to military school there.

    And the Imperial Guard was called out at the end of the Waterloo Battle. After hard fighting, they ultimately broke.

    England, with its powerful navy, was pretty much invasion-proof, and it was Napoleon's invasion of Russia that pretty much insured his first defeat.

    I think that even if Napoleon had been allowed to stay in power in France, he would have been dead in a few years. His ultimate influence would not have been so great as to have us all speaking French.

    But it was an interesting speculation, Delle! You're bringing out all the Waterloo Groupies!

  7. True, true, and true. As far as we know. It's actually hard to argue that France could have pulled off a conquest of Britain, but Napoleon could be a man who had surprising resources and ingenuity.

    Napoleon's biggest flaw was believing what he wanted to believe and ignoring reality. His frantic desire to get an heir shows us that he knew what would happen to his empire once he died, and he was on the edge of poor health at the time of the battle. And yes, likely, sooner or later his empire would have collapsed. Like Alexander the Great, he had not built a legacy because everything centered on him.

    The only man I can think of who would have actually had the sheer will and intelligence to propel it into the future was Joseph Fouche, and he didn't want to. Maybe Talleyrand, but I doubt it. And both were already approaching old age, in their late 50's to 60.

    And yes, Wellington chose the battle site, not Napoleon. He had it scoped out long in advance. Nevertheless he was caught off guard when the warning message from Colquhoun Grant didn't get through to him.

    Still, whether this scenario could have happened or not, it was certainly on the minds of many British citizens, as it had been for a long time. At the time, you never knew what Napoleon would do next.

  8. A thing or two more, though:
    Wellington only had what Parliament was willing to give him, and whenever he did not appear to be winning, they came close to stopping his funding. Of course if it were a matter of that final invasion, they probably wouldn't hold back.

    But there were many things that could have happened to Wellington, too. If he had not survived, and if the battle had not gone well that would have been a possibility, who would have replaced him? I'd say he could have been replaced, but the genius for fighting when the odds were poor didn't really exist in any of his generals.

    It would have been up to Blucher to lead any Allied opposition. I can't see much reason to count on either Russia or Austria.

  9. This certainly has been an interesting discussion. I'll jump on the bandwagon and agree that Napoleon would not have taken over Western Civilization, but England certainly wouldn't have been the Emipire that she became over the next 75 to 100 years.

  10. I wonder if common people would have been better off under French rule. The years after Waterloo were exceptionally hard (part of it being a succession of bad harvests), but also accompanied by some very repressive legislation that swept away civil rights (the Six Acts), the repeal of Habeas Corpus, and the Corn Laws that kept the price of bread artificially high.

  11. Thinking in terms of the people rather than the personalities, I don't think a different outcome of Waterloo would have changed Modern Europe that much. The French did not become English, just as the British would not have become French had Napoleon won.

    It's the same thing with the American Revolution. We were too American even prior to Lexington and Concord ever to be a "British" nation.

  12. Cool discussion. There are great arguments on both sides of the issue and I can see logic in either side. Great food for thought, Delle!

  13. Janet, I think we could look at Hamburg as an interesting example. The people of Hamburg and the Hanseatic States were starving under Napoleonic rule, and many actually did. Their ports were shut down- their main source of income. Their cathedrals and churches turned into French military stables (which really inflamed them).

    One thing about nations under Napoleonic rule that many people don't know is there was a sort of inner sphere and an outer sphere. Those that were absorbed into the Empire were given more privilege, but those which were merely under the influence- treated as hostile conquered states- were subject to heavy conscription and taxes but given no real privilege.

    I'd have to get out my book to give more precise info, but the book I'm thinking of is *EUROPE UNDER NAPOLEON* by Michael Broers.

    It depends on a lot of things, of course, but if England and its Allies had been sufficiently weakened by the battle, and France held its strength and could still draw conscripts from all of Europe as well as seize their goods, they could have the power. That was how they had been doing it, and the power of Europe was the power that had fueled Napoleon's conquests, not just that of France.

    I tend to think too much had been drained from France, and even from the whole of Europe for the fight to continue much longer. And in truth, the powerful men in France had managed to band enough strength to turn against Napoleon. But overall their leadership would not prevail, historically.

    I don't think the French soldiers hated the British. But by this time they hated Louis and the royalists, who had totally botched their return, this being the major reason why Napoleon was able to return and regain power so quickly. And they saw England as the major supporter of the French royal family.

  14. Another thing I had forgotten that we should consider: Where did the European Allies get their funds to rebuild their armies to provide resistance to Napoleon? If they had been so drained under Napoleon rule and so soundly defeated in battle, how did they manage to rebuild? The answer is Britain. It was the British Empire that made payments to the Allies to keep their involvement. The Allies did not resurrect themselves entirely on their own.

    First: Would Britain gone to all this expense just for the purpose of saving its Allies' skins? Or was it that important to save them in order to save Britain?

    Second: If they had not financed their Allies, could they have survived on their own?

    Third: Why did Britain go to all the trouble to support the small,impoverished nations of Spain and Portugal? Why wold they have done this if the danger to Britain was not perceived as great?

    Britain poured enormous amounts of wealth into all its Allies during the entire Napoleonic Period. Sometimes despite this, their Allies turned on them, usually under pressure from France, but none of the Allies fully trusted Britain. Loyalty was never an issue for any country. It was always self-interest. It was always, "What have you done for me lately?" and "Can you do more for me tomorrow than the enemy can?"

  15. As another Waterloo groupie, I got a kick out of this, though I'm firmly on the side of those who believe that a French victory at Waterloo wouldn't have made a huge difference. As you say, Napoleon was not at the height of his powers. IIRC, he spent most of the battle lying in his tent nursing his hemorrhoids--and while he had the advantage of a more unified force than the Allies, France just didn't have the resources to get much beyond her own borders. He threw the Imperial Guard in at the end, and even they were broken. His time had passed.

  16. Hi Mary Jo- good to see you here!

    There's a lot of conjecture around Napoleon's health at that time, and not even agreement on how much actual time he spent at the battlefield. Although it's clear there was no fighting on the 17th because the battle area was far too muddy from the heavy rain to keep artillery from being mired. Even on the 18th it was bad. And Wellington had done a great job of pulling his forces together and securing his choice of battlefield at Mt. St. Jean, so smaller skirmishes were limited to the Prussians fighting in retreat. But there are some strong indications that Napoleon might have "rested" on that day anyway.

    I always found it interesting that the two commanders were pretty much the same age, but one was still in the ascendency and the other beginning his decline. But those are also things we know far better from hindsight than was known at the time.

    Coincidence and luck often play heavy parts in battles such as this. Blucher, caught off guard and defeated at Ligny, could have been knocked out of play, but instead he made the difference by retreating to join Wellington. Lots of mistakes were made on both sides, and lots of coincidences occurred. The grapeshot that took off Uxbridge's leg could have hit one horseman over and taken out Wellington instead.

    France had operated their giant pyramid scheme for a long time, conquering to fund further conquests. To regain their former status, they needed to conquer England, which they would drain of resources with lightning speed, as they had much of Europe already.

    Surprising to most people is the fact that only about 24,000 of the Allied forces at Waterloo were British, and they lost over 10,000 in Waterloo and Quatre Bras a few days before, about a third of their army. Probably more would have been lost in a defeating battle, and only about 15,000 would have been around to get back to England's shores.

    Although French losses were heavier, they still had over 50,000 for an invasion. And the psychological impact of such a victory could have brought all kinds of side-switching. Both Austria and Russia were notorious for that.

    But then, there's the British Navy, who would have been right there. As one British admiral said in 1803, "I do not say they cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea."


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