What’s on : Lectures

Waterloo: An Iconic Battle?

2 Jun 2015
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Prof. Alan Forrest

Event Information

 Waterloo: An Iconic Battle? 

Joint lecture with the Historical Association, York branch

Alan Forrest, Professor Emeritus of Modern History, University of York

How has Waterloo been remembered and celebrated across Europe, in the countries whose troops took part in the battle? Only Britain sought to turn Waterloo into an iconic battle. Britain would insist that Waterloo was a singularly British victory, attributable to Wellington’s military genius and to the defensive grit of the British character. The Dutch tended to play down the martial qualities of their nation and chose to associate the battle with the dynastic triumph of the House of Orange. In Prussia, which contributed so many soldiers to the Allied cause, little prominence was given to the battle, in marked contrast to the celebration of the Battle of Leipzig two years earlier. And for the French Waterloo would become the very epitome of the ‘glorious defeat’, which – for a romantic age brought up on the Sorrows of the Young Werther – would add to, rather than detract from, Napoleon’s legend.

Member’s report

The after-effects of the Battle of Waterloo differed markedly among the participating nations and armies. For the British it was the greatest victory of all time. Among the allies it wasn’t: for the Dutch it provided an unlikely hero, the injured Prince Willem; in Germany, though “Waterloo” is often found in street names, the Prussians preferred to celebrate Leipzig. France often commemorates glorious defeats in place names, but never uses Waterloo. Both France and Germany now share a reluctance to celebrate the violence of war – 70,000 men died in 1815, and even more have died in war since.

The British, ignoring the contribution of their allies, saw it as a victory for British qualities. Returning soldiers took the narrative home where it was celebrated on bridges and roads, in panoramas and palaces. There was a Waterloo Medal for all combatants, but there was also battlefield tourism and souvenir-grabbing.

Napoleon never lost his heroic status in France; Wellington, as Prime Minister, was hated by many for his profoundly illiberal views. He was nevertheless given a huge state funeral, which, in a changed world, was attended by the French ambassador, Alexandre Walewski, who was thought to be Napoleon’s illegitimate son.

Carole Smith