Europe

Battle of Waterloo myth debunked: Conquering Napoleon ‘not a British victory’

Napoleon exposed pharaonic civilisation 'splendours' says expert

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Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Battle of Waterloo, changed the world forever. The Corsican-born emperor brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories he conquered, and implemented fundamental liberal policies in France and much of Western Europe. His legacy continues to divide people to this day — to some he is a national hero and brilliant military strategist, yet to others he was an autocratic, warmongering leader who supported the restoration of slavery. 

Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 signalled the end of intermittent Anglo-French conflict, and signalled the dawn of a new era of British supremacy.

The battle is the subject of a new ‘48 Hours to Victory’ documentary on Channel 5 tonight.

Dermot O’Leary and his team will examine the famous battle, asking how the Duke of Wellington got the better of his French counterpart.

Wellington’s triumph, which ultimately led to the collapse of the French Empire, has long been hailed as one of Britain’s finest hours.

Yet, historian Lucy Worsley said in a throwback interview that labelling the Battle of Waterloo as a solely “British victory” is immensely unfair.

Ms Worsley spoke to History Revealed magazine last year.

When asked about her thoughts on the “British victory”, she said: “It depends on your perspective.

“If you were the Duke of Wellington, then yes, it was totally a British victory.

“But if you were the Duke of Wellington’s European allies, then you might get rather annoyed at that statement.”

In June 1815, Napoleon’s forces marched into Belgium, where they were met by separate armies of British and Prussian troops camped in the country.

French troops defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, but could not entirely destroy the Prussian army.

Two days later, some 72,000 French troops faced up to the 68,000-strong British army, positioned near the village of Waterloo, just south of Brussels.

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This was a crucial error, since it allowed the remaining Prussian troops time to march to Waterloo and join the fight.

Estimates range between 30,000 and 53,000 Prussian troops marching to Waterloo, but they had a profound impact regardless.

Their arrival turned the tide, and saw Napoleon’s army retreat in chaos.

The French suffered an estimated 33,000 casualties during the Belgian campaign, while British and Prussian numbers reached more than 22,000.

Napoleon is reported to have rode away from the battle in tears, and plotted an escape to the United States. But British ships were blocking every port, and he surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland on HMS Bellerophon on July 15, 1815.

The British exiled him to the island of Saint Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

None of this would have been possible without the help of Wellington’s European allies.

Ms Worsley said: “The European allies referred to the battle as the Belle Alliance and saw it as a European collaboration, but from the earliest dispatch sent back to Britain after the battle, Wellington was calling it the Battle of Waterloo after the place it was fought, playing down the collaborative nature of the victory.”

Of the 32 infantry regiments in Wellington’s army, only 18 were British — seven of which were Scottish. According to the Independent, just one in eight of the estimated 120,000 soldiers who defeated Napoleon were English.

Colin Brown, author of ‘The Scum of the Earth’, wrote: “Victorian jingoism fuelled one of the most persistent myths about Waterloo: that it was a British — or more even inaccurately, an English victory.”

Napoleon died after six years on Saint Helena after his health deteriorated rapidly, widely believed to be due to gastric cancer.

48 Hours to Victory airs at 8pm on Channel 4 on Saturday. It will also be available on All4.

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