Everybody knows the Battle of Waterloo, of course – it is the most famous battle in all of history, but why?
I’ll be honest; it isn’t my favourite battle in all of history. It probably makes the top ten on posterity if for nothing else, but despite being a great pounding match, it wasn’t really all that exciting, I’m sorry to say. For me, Gettysburg has all the makings of a truly exciting, last-ditch, seat-of-your-pants battle…indeed I count that as my personal favourite. Breitenfeld, Lutzen (either of them), Blenheim or Leuthen were all more exciting battles, with more movements and evolutions, more exciting stuff for the ‘armchair general’ or the student of tactics…so why Waterloo?
Wellington himself sounded a little underwhelmed by the whole thing, stating that; “The French came on in the same old style – in columns, and were driven off in the same old style” whilst Napoleon on the other hand said much the same. He was disappointed with Wellington; a man of whom he had heard there was much to be feared, but barring praising his bravery and staunchness, he complained that Wellington made no manoeuvres nor did anything particularly exciting on the day – indeed that he did everything possible to lose the battle.
Yet Waterloo holds a place in the hearts of the military historian like no other battle in history. It is the most written about battle in history, the most studied, the most conjectured and the most argued-over. So why the fascination?
Well the answer is simple; Waterloo is the grandfather of every action story ever told!
1) The Comeback – Firstly there’s the ‘comeback’ angle. Forget that this was history and think up some magical land, be it Middle Earth or something out of ‘Game of Thrones’ – an Emperor, once the terror of the known world is imprisoned on an island when suddenly he breaks free, takes back his country and his armies and goes on one last mad dash to take on the world, to change everything and re-write history. This is the ultimate finale to an epic tale. You couldn’t have written a more exciting story, but yet it truly happened. Napoleon must surely credited with the greatest comeback in all of history!
2) The Showdown – How better to create a story than the two greatest generals of the age – men who had never met before in battle, sizing up for the final battle? Rarely if ever has history given any parallels on such a scale. Forget Hannibal Vs. Scipio, Caesar Vs. pompey, Gustavus Adolphus Vs. Tilly or Turenne Vs. The Great Conde – this was bigger, grander and more epic! The unbeaten Wellington against the incomparable Napoleon – this was the “Rumble in the Jungle” of the military world; the most anticipated showdown of all time! Odds were on for Napoleon; the man who had beaten everyone, whilst Wellington was still the challenger; the the man who had never been beaten by anyone, yet had never faced Napoleon. Take away the ‘Waterloo’ myths we all know, and put this into a different context. Imagine you didn’t know, or that it was something and somewhere else and now look again…how exciting a story can you get? This is the “Rocky” of the 19th century and then some!
3) Defeat and Opportunity – In making a story – imagining this was all some tall tale of fictitious heroes and villains, there comes a point where the bad guy has to look very much like he is winning, and boy, did the Waterloo campaign give us that in bundles?? Napoleon charges up the Charleroi road and smashes the Prussians at Ligny, and even Wellington is severely battered at Quatre Bras and forced to retreat to Waterloo. The allies separate, the Prussians look like fleeing and leaving Wellington to fend for himself; the chances of winning are halved as the Prussian army streams away into the night, but then comes a mistake – a glimmer of hope for our hero Wellington, as Marshal Grouchy, in hot pursuit of the Prussians, overshoots them, and suddenly they are closer to Wellington than he is. Can the Prussians come back into the game, or is Wellington to be abandoned and defeated?? – This is every action movie you ever saw!
4) The hero fights alone – Cornered and confronted at last by the giant, unstoppable ogre, Wellington turns and fights, absorbing the blows, hitting back where he can, soaking up the punishment but getting worn down. The great Napoleon can’t manoeuvre for the mud and must now come on head-down like a juggernaut, hammering wildly with everything he has as Wellington picks his shots, absorbs the battering and wonders if he can withstand it much longer. Go and watch the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the rope-a-dope of Ali, with Big George Foreman smashing away as our hero rolls on the ropes, hitting back where he can and tiring out his mighty opponent…epic struggles don’t come more brilliant than this!
5) Here comes the cavalry! – The clinching moment in every action-movie! As our hero struggles to hold on, and we convince ourselves that he must be defeated, that last forgotten shred of hope arrives in the nick of time! The Prussians arrive, the pressure on Wellington slackens and now our hero is back in the game and fighting like ‘John Champion’. The beast roars and fights like never before, but we get the feeling that the good guys are winning…until.
6) The bad guy is still too strong! – Despite all the odds, our plucky hero Wellington and his friend Blucher are hitting the Emperor with all they have, but it still isn’t enough! Our hopes, once soaring high are now dashed as the bad guy gets up again, shrugs off the flurry of blows which we – the compelled audience – were sure would see the end of him, and now he gets angrier and scarier! His Imperial Guard; the toughest soldiers in the world who have never been conquered on a hundred battlefields march to the front. They are too strong! Surely this is the end??
7) Our hero finds his inner strength – As in every good action film, our hero finds himself alone and staring defeat in the face as the monster gets back up and comes at him, and now with no tricks up his sleeve, he must battle for his life! Remember ‘Aliens’ where Ripley finds herself alone and confronting the Queen Xenomorph? Suddenly our hero manfully stands up and now pounds the Imperial Guard and then suddenly, as they have never done before, they are running back across the field! “La Garde Recule!” they shout as they tumble back, and suddenly the whole French line is falling back from the field and the ogre is gone for good! Roll the credits!!
8) No sequel! – This was ‘the decider’ – no ‘bad guy comes back’ routine – everyone knows that this is the last chapter in the book. Like Darth Vader or Voldemort, we know that they are beaten, and we celebrate, for now we know that good conquers evil in the end, and that the world is at peace!
9) Or is it…? – That little ‘Easter-egg’ at the end of the film…like when Vin Diesel turns up after the credits have rolled on ‘Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift’ or when Carrie’s hand comes out of the grave in the dream; the Emperor sits on his island of St Helena and stares out to sea….maybe, just maybe, he might still come back…
Think about Waterloo next time you are watching a good action flick and you will see that it is all there. Rocky, the Alien Films or some of the world’s greatest boxing matches…heck the WWE Wrestling is a perfect example, and you will see why Waterloo is truly the greatest action story ever told; indeed it is the great-grandfather of every action story ever told!
Nothing else comes close, and why should it? Waterloo is the very model upon which almost every action story you have ever watched or read is based…so yes, the actors might have been a little unimpressed with each other’s performance, but to you and I, it had everything we ever needed…and more guns than any Hollywood production too!
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