Waterloo, 200 years on: France chafes, Britain cheers as battle remembered

The battle on Belgian fields marked the end of Napoleon's empire and a great victory for the Duke of Wellington. Today, the British are celebrating as the French do their best to ignore it.

Anthony Devlin/Pool/AP
The Prince of Wales (r.) and Duchess of Cornwall stand during a memorial service for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Thursday at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Royalty, dignitaries, and soldiers around the world on Thursday commemorated the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, a watershed in European history that marked the end of the continent's domination by emperor Napoleon.

Billed as the largest reenactment ever, the key event marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo includes 5,000 participants, 300 horses, and 100 cannons. Tickets have been sold out for months. European royalty and dignitaries are among the crowds gathered in Belgium to mark an event that changed the course of European history.

But one country’s top officials have been notably absent from the hoopla on the battlefields south of Brussels. 

“France would never participate in a commemoration of a lost war,” says Luc de Vos, a Belgian military historian and retired colonel. “They only commemorate the wars that they won.”

The Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 ended French domination and crushed Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's ambitions to spread 1789 French revolutionary ideals across the whole of Europe.

But it's not just the French whose psyche is coming under scrutiny over the bicentennial of a battle that lasted half a day and led to upwards of 50,000 fatalities. Napoleon’s Grande Armee fought a combined force of British, Prussians, and others, commanded by the Duke of Wellington.

The event has revived old debates over who actually should be honored at Waterloo – and whether the British celebrating the victory are really so different from the French avoiding the defeat.

To be sure, the French aren't doing much with the Waterloo anniversary. President François Hollande was prominent this year at the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the centenary of the start of World War I last year. But “the president is not going to rush to be the first chief of staff to celebrate a French defeat,” someone close to the president sneered to Le Monde. Instead, he opted today to mark the 75th anniversary of a pivotal anti-Nazi speech by Charles de Gaulle.

French prickliness over the matter has not been limited to the battlefield. When Belgium tried to mint this year a commemorative Waterloo coin, Paris blocked them. They got around it by issuing a 2.50 euro piece, one that didn’t need the “okay” from other eurozone members.

But the French and others also raise constructive questions about Waterloo as well. Does Wellington really deserve the praise that Britain is heaping on him? Many say the Brits are too eager to cast him as a hero because he could not have won alone, without the rest of Europe also against France.

Should it actually be Napoleon who is feted, some French scholars seriously inquire? While his legacy is a complicated one, it was his ideals and ideas that spread across Europe. The most shared story on Le Monde’s website today, as events kicked off, was a republished piece from last year titled, “Napoléon, le superman français.”

Are they really so different?

The split between British and French thinking is obvious from looking at just who is marking the day's events. For Britain's part, the royal family and Prime Minister David Cameron celebrated the victory at a national service at St. Paul's Cathedral. Meanwhile, the French sent its ambassador to Belgium to a ceremony this morning to kick off a weekend of events in Waterloo. 

Though the Brits characterize the French as "snubbing" the Waterloo commemorations, Mr. De Vos says they’d also downplay the event, which includes two mega re-enactments tomorrow and Saturday nights, if the outcome had been different.

“The British think in the same way" as the French, he says, noting that in contrast to both, the Germans have willingly participated in commemorations of the two World Wars. "The two countries that have the most psychological difficulties [thinking about defeat in war] are the French and British.”

He boils it down to one word: “chauvinism,” he says.

Still, it’s not that the French are pretending the event never happened. In fact, Le Monde used today’s anniversary to publish an unprecedented editorial in English “to make sure the message is really heard,” the paper wrote.

“Defeat does not come easily to a proud nation. On June 18th, 1815, France did not only lose thousands of its brave soldiers on the gory fields of Belgium. It lost an Emperor, whom the English then took into permanent exile on the desolate island of St Helena; it also lost its dream of hegemony,” it wrote.

Waterloo, however, ushered in an unprecedented era of peace, the paper argues. “Another spectacular achievement of Waterloo, though, may have been missed: two centuries of Anglo-French peace. Never again have we been at war with each other, except on rugby fields. … This is why, on this bicentenary, we feel entitled to call on our British allies to resist the familiar temptation of splendid isolation. The country which cornered Napoleon cannot succumb to Nigel Farage. Today, we solemnly say to our friends across the Channel: beware, Brexit could be your Waterloo!”

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