What I love most about it being the 200th anniversary of Waterloo today is not that it was Napoleon’s – and indeed Wellington’s last foray, nor even that it was the ‘decider’ of a war which had raged on and off for over 20 years, but that in actuality, Waterloo decided the longest war in history; that of Britain versus France.
Forget the Thirty, Eighty or even Hundred Years’ War, Waterloo settled a thousand year war between the two cross-channel neighbours for good. Who was dominant? Who was right? Who was best? – We both knew the answer was ‘us’ but one had to come out on top, and in the end, it was old Blighty that stood over the prostrate carcass of France.
Geographically and historically, of course, ‘England’ fought France more than Britain, but there were Scots and Welsh at Crecy and Agincourt, and we’re basically all the same. Conversely, France didn’t look anything like it does today…still we’re British and they’re French, so let’s tidy that niggle up quickly.
Since before Hastings in 1066 we were bickering, but Hastings was the real ‘kick-off’ of the Thousand Years War. France started it…and they finished it too. The next really big event was the Hundred Years’ War – which lasted a hundred and twenty years, by the way, and despite us handing the French a series of embarrassments at Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Verneuil, they won again because of Joan of Arc, the siege of Orleans and a few other victories. Britain had won after Agincourt and claimed the throne, but eventually they kicked us out.
In a thousand different places, we fought the French across the globe. Briefly we were on their side in the 1600’s and even regained control of Dunkirk by diplomacy, but sold it back soon after, and then came the Nine Years’ War (or the war of the League of Augsburg) and we British got spanked under our Dutch King William of Orange at Fleurus, Steenkirke, Neerwinden and a few other places…so far we were not doing that great!
Within a few years though, came the War of the Spanish Succession: Donauworth, Blenheim, Ramillies, Elixheim, Oudenarde, Lille, Malplaquet and Douai – all battles and sieges in which we hammered the evil French across a continent under the brilliant Duke of Marlborough. Britain was on the winning side at the end – at least diplomatically, but France pretty much won after Britain pulled out of the war, only to return to reap the spoils.
Finally, Britain looked like being the winner in this great contest, and this looked even more likely when we began to spank the French in the wars of the Austrian Succession, but then came Marshal de Saxe – the brilliant French commander who beat the Duke of Cumberland in some hard-fought battles, and forced him to withdraw. France again looked dominant, but then came the Seven Years’ War: And this was the turning point.
The Seven Years’ War was in reality the First World War – forget 1914-1918 that was World War 3 – and Britain and France battled across the globe for supremacy. This time the victory was clear-cut. France lost chunks of her Empire including India – which was won by the outstanding General Robert Clive, and Canada which was taken by the genius of Wolfe. In Europe, France was humiliated by Frederick the Great’s beating them at Rossbach, and then again by a British and Hanoverian force at Minden. France was humbled, and Britain was now the dominant power for the first time in 1700 years of this epic conflict.
The forces of Red and Blue clashed again in America, this time at Yorktown, which wrested the American Colonies from Britain, and France counted this as her own victory, with a little American help. In reality, this freed up British troops, who began to take more parts of the French Empire and to consolidate their hold in India, which the French aimed to get back.
Finally came the French Revolution, and Britain was only too keen to stomp out France once and for all. In Egypt, we forced their army to surrender after the Battle of the Nile and of Alexandria whilst in India they had roused forces against British rule and trained and equipped armies of Maharajas, the Tippoo Sultan and the Mahrattas. Yet Britain won that war at Assaye, Laswari, Argaum and Gawilghur in 1803-1804, then crushed the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 and even scored a neat victory at Maida in 1806. Finally with Sir Arthur Wellesley and Horatio Nelson having taken the stage, Britain was in the ascendant.
Then came Napoleon – not then ‘General Bonaparte’ of the French Revolution, but the towering figure now known to history by that one name, and now France became once more the most powerful and dominant force in the world. Britain fought France under Wellington in Spain between 1808-1813, and now France was handed beating after beating; at Rolica, Vimeiro, Corunna, Oporto, Talavera, Bussaco, Torres Veedras, Barrossa, Fuentes de Onoro, Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, the Pyrenees, the Nive, Nivelle, Orthes and Tolouse until Napoleon abdicated and World War Two had ended with Britain feeling mighty proud.
Waterloo was the last outing of this epic war which had rolled across the world for eighteen-hundred years, and now it would be seen if the unconquerable Napoleon could win France’s glory back against the undefeated Wellington, but he could not, and by the end of June 18th 1815 his armies were streaming away towards Paris.
Today I celebrate Britain’s last and final victory over the French. Our oldest enemy was defeated, and in thee end we became grudging friends, yet still the British hold a little pride and the French a little rancour for the decider of the Thousand Years’ War: Waterloo.