by wjw on June 20, 2015

So we find ourselves on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  More than marking the end of Napoleon’s great adventure, the battle gave Europe 100 years of peace.  Not that there weren’t wars now and then, but there was nothing that tore apart the social order and massacred a whole generation the way Napoleon or Wilhelm II did.

On the other hand, the war and the Congress of Vienna froze in place a number of European autocracies that required war and revolution to overthrow, something on the scale of the 1914 war.

Here we view the climactic scene from the 1970 film Waterloo, directed by the Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk, who I’ve always thought of as “Sergei Ponderous,” from his heavy-handed directorial style.  (It was Bondarchuk who directed the 6 1/2 hour version of War and Peace, which I once viewed on a midnight-till-dawn showing in a London theater.  If you survived the French invasion, you got champagne.)

Bondarchuk was lucky enough to be able to borrow what seems to be the entire Yugoslav Army, which will give you an idea of the sheer scale of the battle, with nearly 200,000 men (and a few women) clawing at each other on a very compact, muddy battlefield, so constricted that it’s hard to believe that any of those bullets missed.

I’d advise going to your full-screen option.

The film also give you an idea of the sheer slaughter that produced 40-50,000 dead— the precise number is impossible to determine, because the French were so broken they never managed a head count afterwards.  The Prussian observer Müffling said that when the British advanced at the end of the day they looked like skirmishers, because they left so many dead behind, lying in their precise rows.

In the film Rod Steiger fails to resist the impulse to overact the part of Napoleon, while Christopher Plummer as Wellington enacts every possible cliché about the arch, dapper, emotionally reserved British officer.  (It was Wellington who invented those clichés, of course.)  Blücher and the Prussians are the product of a Russian production team who remembers 1941, not 1815.

On the actual battlefield, there would have been many fewer explosions.  The cannonballs were solid and didn’t blow up, but a solid shot isn’t very cinematic.  And the Imperial Guard wasn’t defeated in quite this way, though this is close enough.

Wellington spend the entire day amid slaughter, with people around him being cut down on all sides.  Just after the French broke (just after this film excerpt ends), Wellington’s second-in-command, the Earl of Uxbridge— seen here in the slightly ridiculous fur hat— had his leg removed by a grapeshot, showering Wellington with bone and bloody flesh.

I viewed the Waterloo battlefield some time after this film was released, and from what I aw there, it was absolutely clear that Napoleon had won.  There was the Restaurant Napoleon, the Napoleon bar, the Napoleon hotel, the Napoleon cinema.  Wellington was nowhere to be seen, and the great hero on the Allied side was clearly the Prince of Orange, who was indeed a brave warrior— if a little out of his depth— and who was wounded at the battle’s climax.  (He later became the Netherlands’ first king, and the Belgians— who now revere him as the Hero of Waterloo— promptly rebelled and booted him out.)

What happened was that Napoleon got to retire and write his memoirs, fixing himself in history, while Wellington went on serving, and eventually became a notably reactionary prime minister.  Though he lived a very long time, he never offered his own memoirs to the world, though he read and annotated everyone else’s.  (“L” for “Lie,” and “D.L.” for “Damned Lie.”)

I’ve seen some arguments that Waterloo didn’t actually change history in any significant way. Maybe not, except that it changed the histories of 40-50,000 people who never got to write learned articles about how they didn’t matter.

Wellington, notably cold-hearted on the battlefield, was less so when he viewed his casualty lists, and wrote: “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Which is an apt enough epitaph, if you ask me.

UPDATE: The film has been blocked, by God!  A bad business, but you can still view it on Youtube.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Privateiron June 20, 2015 at 7:05 am

Consider Cannae, a great* battle which ultimately changed nothing and consider the numerous small actions which decided at least as much as Waterloo, but it just wasn’t obvious at the time.

I consider Waterloo a great boon to the British. Without it, they would not have had the opportunity to say they beat Boney. Assuming history played out more or less the same way, this would have been the last real chance for them to put the boot in to the French and poof, all the glory would have gone to the Russians instead.

*Taking as read that it sucked for the casualties on any side.

Dave Bishop June 21, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Beware ‘Great Leaders’ and ‘Men of Destiny’ – they’re often lethal!

What gets me about the battles of the Napoleonic wars is that all of the combatants had to dress up in bloody silly, elaborate (and no doubt desperately uncomfortable) costumes in order to slaughter each other!

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