Thinking Aloud: Waterloo, Celebrating the Power of an Idea

June 17, 2015 by Darius 

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  French leader Napoleon Bonaparte lost the battle to numerically superior British, Dutch, and Prussian forces, permanently ending his time in power.  What is more remarkable than the battle itself, though, is that Napoleon was able to fight it at all.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon was a junior artillery officer in the French army.  He was arguably the most brilliant mind in military history, however.  His first big break came when his tactical insight allowed the French to be victorious at the siege of Toulon in 1793.  By 1795, he was commanding an army, and in 1799, Napoleon seized power in France.  In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, and for the next decade, Napoleon led his armies in conquest of most of Europe, routing the best generals of the day time and time again.  The Duke of Wellington, perhaps Napoleon’s most formidable adversary, said that Napoleon’s personal presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men.

In 1814, though, following a disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon was vanquished by the combined might of Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia.  Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba; the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.

It wasn’t the last the world would see of Napoleon, though.  In late February 1815, Napoleon escaped his captivity on Elba and landed in France with a tiny force of loyalists.  The recently installed Bourbon king predictably dispatched an army to arrest Napoleon.  Down to a man, though, the king’s army defected to Napoleon, who entered Paris without a shot being fired.  The neighboring European powers once again declared war on France, leading to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo a few months later.

Napoleon’s welcome in France and ability to field an army at Waterloo is truly extraordinary.  After nearly a quarter century of continuous war and 15 years of Napoleon’s absolute rule, the French people were still willing to follow Napoleon, even in the face of near-certain defeat.  According to historical accounts, Napoleon’s army at Waterloo was largely made up of teenagers and men older than 50—most other French men of military age had been killed.  Those teenagers and old men, though, still overwhelmingly preferred Napoleon to the restoration of the monarchy.

Rarely in history does one see a people willing to sacrifice so much, against such overwhelming odds, for the power of an idea.  That’s what should be commemorated tomorrow.


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